The flight attendants always say, in an emergency, place the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help the person next to you.
Dr. Marilyn Gaston and Dr. Gayle Porter transfer that message to the midlife African-American woman they work to help. Too many times, these family matriarchs focus solely on everyone else, including the care of adult children, grandchildren and grandparents.
It may be one reason African-American women die younger than any other group of women in the country.
"You have put it on yourself first," Gaston said. "You can't put it on a child or an elder if you're unconscious."
Prime Time Sister Circles seeks to reverse the trend by empowering African-American women between the ages of 40 and 70. The program blends nutrition, exercise and stress-management education with support group principles. With the help of Healthy Together Tampa Bay, it makes its Tampa launch Aug. 21.
Gaston, a former assistant surgeon general, and Porter, a clinical psychologist, created Prime Time Sister Circles in 2003. The goal is to eliminate health disparities created by ignorance, isolation and poor access to health solutions.
Since the first sister circle, the program has inspired women in Washington, D.C., suburban Maryland, Chicago and Orlando to not only change their own lives, but to change the lives of family members. One woman taught her grandchild to read nutrition labels. She said, "I want to be here to see your grandchildren."
After a few weeks, she got a craving for a bag of fatty chips. The grandson bounced around the store but changed his demeanor when he found her with the chips.
"He said, 'Nana, what is this?' " Gaston explained. "He held them up and said, 'Don't you see how much fat is in here and how much salt is in here?' He gave them to the cashier and said, 'My nana can't eat this because she's going to live long enough to see my grandchildren.' "
More than 80 percent of the women who have gone through the 12-week program have maintained healthy lifestyle changes. The support-group aspect fosters sisterhood while creating accountability.
It also empowers women. They find the strength to change careers, challenge adult children and end unhealthy relationships. One woman convinced her pastor to promote better nutrition.
"She told him, 'You're saving our souls in the sanctuary, but when we go downstairs, we're killing our bodies.' "
Such stories inspire Gaston and Porter to maintain their efforts, and it's prompted me to personally help Healthy Together promote the launch as a co-chairman. The doctors have harnessed the greatest strengths of these women: sisterhood and self-reliance.
Together, they can accomplish anything — as long as they help themselves first.
That's all I'm saying.