TAMPA — It's Monday evening and 25 women have gathered in a church fellowship hall to begin a transformation. • The gathering starts with a prayer as the women seek God's help on the journey they are about to undertake. But it's their health, not their faith, that they are here to save. • This is a Prime Time Sister Circle, a nationwide program developed by a former assistant U.S. surgeon general and a clinical psychologist to improve the health of African-American women ages 40 to 70. Dr. Marilyn Gaston and Gayle Porter brought their program to Tampa in 2008, explaining they chose this target audience because African-Americans are dying from chronic diseases at rates greater than any other ethnic groups in the nation. And much of what's killing them — heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity — is often preventable through healthier lifestyle choices.
The first speaker starts with a question. Does anyone know what the word "stressed" spells backward? Some of the women smile at each other; others take pen to paper. Laughter ripples through the room. Desserts!
"What do you do when you get stressed?" asks Pat Lambert, a former registered nurse. "Go to the refrigerator! That's why stress management is our first topic."
Despite her slim, stylishly dressed figure, Lambert's health once was at risk, too. Her personal story and how she learned to regain physical and emotional fitness will hold the women's attention for the next two hours.
Some of the women are here because they want to lose weight; others want to get off blood pressure medication or ward off diabetes. Many have spent their lives taking care of others and have neglected their own health. They want to change, but they need the knowledge and support they hope they'll get from Prime Time Sister Circles.
Cherryl Franklin of Tampa knows it works. Before she went through the program last year, the 56-year-old single mother of six was overweight, had diabetes and wasn't exercising. Prime Time Sister Circles "gave me permission to say, 'This is too much,' " she said of her old lifestyle and health.
Best of all, it connected her with other women working toward the same goals.
"Weight loss, stress management, putting the focus on me," said Franklin, ticking off the most valuable lessons she has learned. "I've been a big girl all my life, but for the first time in 16 years I'm under 200 pounds. It's been dramatic."
Mae Allen also benefited from the program, which she helped launch in Tampa. But it took two years for her to realize she needed to do more than just get others involved.
"It has to be personal to bring about change," said the 54-year-old Valrico woman. "My father died at 54 and I knew I needed to make some of my own changes." When she put the Sister Circles principles into practice Allen lost 30 pounds and lowered her blood pressure. Today she is the program director of Prime Time Sister Circles in Tampa.
Each Circle is limited to 25 women and is funded by donations, grants or employer sponsorships. The current Circle was made possible by a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation. "We are always looking for funding," said Allen. "It takes about $35,000 to run each Circle."
During the 12-week program women learn how to manage stress without excess food, control portion sizes, make healthy food choices and make physical activity a part of their daily lives. "They really get education on how to take better care of themselves and how to put themselves first," said Allen.
Changing the habits of a lifetime is hard work, but Mary Shorter, 56, doesn't mind. She started taking better care of herself last year, when she took classes in diabetes prevention. She joined Prime Time Sister Circles to help keep herself on the right track.
"I have one sister and one brother with diabetes. I don't want that to happen to me," said Shorter, whose sister is doing the program with her.
Shorter's husband has Alzheimer's disease, but she says her caretaker role won't derail her personal goals — far from it, in fact.
"I need to be healthy so I can continue taking care of my husband,'' she said.
Albedean Nash knows her weight and stressful job are compromising her health. The 52-year-old mother of two thinks having the support of other women will make the difference for her.
"I need help to change my lifestyle," she said. "I don't want to be on any medications. I don't take any now and I want to keep it that way."
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected]