In Northern California a “Walk With Friends” Leads to Healthier Living

Phyllis LusanWhat makes local residents meet up to take a walk together in several Sacramento parks each week? To hear them tell it, it’s the fun that comes from a shared activity with neighbors, and, for as long as supplies hold out, free fruit and vegetables at the end of the trek.

The program, Walk With Friends, is an initiative of the Health Education Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access, education, advocacy and training to empower individuals towards a healthy life. Funding for Walk With Friends comes from a Kaiser Permanente program called HEAL Zones that began over a decade ago.

The goal of HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) Zones is to help make healthy choices more accessible to people in underserved communities, support healthy behaviors and reduce obesity through clinical practice and through changes at the community level. Currently there are four HEAL Zones in Northern California and ten in Southern California. .

Shaunda Johnson, the program administrator for the Health Education Council’s Valley Hi HEAL Zone of South Sacramento, says the program has four priority goals for community residents:

  • Reducing the amount of calories residents consume.
  • Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed
  • Increasing physical activity in community settings, such as parks and creating safe routes for walking and biking;
  • Increasing physical activity in institutional settings such as schools, work sites and churches

The first iteration of Walk With Friends, in 2012, was called Walk with Ease and focused on helping people in the community who were dealing with arthritis. Notices went out in the neighborhood, but when only 15 residents turned up, Johnson says she realized she needed a community leader to head up the effort.

Johnson found that community leader, Phyllis Lusan, a retired teacher in her fifties, during a HEAL Zone health fair in the Valley Hi Park, when she spotted Lusan out for a walk.

A chat let Johnson know that Lusan recently diagnosed with diabetes, walked every day in an effort to “take ownership of the disease and avoid medication.” After first turning Johnson down, Lusan agreed to head up a six week pilot program that included a partnership with the Sacramento Food Bank, and a neighborhood church near the park.

At the end of the pilot Lusan, now fully onboard, walked door to door to encourage residents to participate, heads up the second generation walking program, now called Walk With Friends, which launched in late summer 2013.

Walkers meet three times a week and walk for thirty to forty-five minute walk, gather in a circle to stretch and on Saturdays are invited to choose produce from the farmers’ market display Phyllis sets out each week. Added incentives include singing, dance contests and prizes and on rainy days the group exercises at the partner church instead of walking. At least a couple of dozen walkers come each week. If Lusan knocks on a door of would be participants and senses hesitation, she invites them to walk one on one with her first. Many do.

Heal Zone reimburses the food bank for the distributed food and shares half the cost of the fridge needed for storage with the church. A second Walk With Friends group that for now meets just on Saturdays has now started at nearby Mesa Grande park, run by volunteer coordinator Sashi Narayan, also in her fifties, who counts a lot of regulars among her several dozen participants. Nari says she walks alongside the participants and encourages them to talk to family members and neighbors to get them to join as well.

“Free stuff is an incentive for a lot of people,” says Phyllis Lusan. “Life is tough and we have almost every multicultural group. Many times they can’t speak English, but that doesn’t stop them from walking together. I’ve seen people form friendships even though they can’t speak the same language.”

No formal study has been done of the groups, but through conversations Johnson knows that a number of people have been able to lose weight and stop taking diabetes medications. Like Lusan, Johnson also hears a lot about community cohesion. “Neighbors who never knew each other now enjoy each other and look out for one another,” says Johnson.

In the near future, a new Walk With Friends group will be starting up in South Sacramento’s Nielsen Park and a version has also started in Roseville that engages residents to do their walking downtown. The goal there, beyond walking, is to get residents to better know their neighbors and frequent stores downtown, many of which have been struggling.

Johnson says the makeup of the existing groups is diverse, including non-English speakers and ages that range from 3 to 90. “It’s just really an awesome thing to witness,” adds Johnson.

The walkers, if they want to, can also learn a brand new skill few knew before: advocacy. With training from the Health Education Council, several years ago, members of Walk With Friends lobbied the Sacramento City Council for a summer program that provides meals, activities and violence intervention programs. They were successful and the program is expected to start up again this summer.

Recently the Health Education Council worked together with Sacramento ACT (Area Congregations Together) to create a community organizing committee. The goal is to have participants advocate for policy or practice changes to continue the work of the HEAL Zones. “Residents talk to other residents about what’s needed to make their community healthier and they’ll start with lower level officials and then go up the ranks to advocate for new plans,” says Johnson.

Earlier this year The California Health and Human Services Agency and the California Department of Public Health invited Walk With Friends to be one of 23 community-based health innovations to present their programs at an innovations conference in Sacramento. The agencies said the 23 programs are among those that advance the effort to make California the nation’s healthiest state by 2022.

While the current funding runs out in 2017, the Health Education Council is working to identify new funding sources so that they can continue and expand the programs. The hope is to make Walk With Friends citywide and then even national, says Johnson. “Parks are the visible thermometer of the community. They can do great things for the morale of the community and the overall energy,” says Johnson.

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