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August 3, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 20

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photo: BSHR Nurse Meg Collins screens Frank Wilson’s blood for glucose and cholesterol levels.

BSHR Nurse Meg Collins screens Frank Wilson’s blood for glucose and cholesterol levels.

Bon Secours Hampton Roads Health System brings better health to Norfolk residents

T hrough its outreach program Passport to Health, Bon Secours Hampton Roads Health System (BSHR) is guiding families in an impoverished area of Norfolk to healthier living that includes nutritious eating habits and regular exercise.

The six-month, multi-faceted approach features health screenings, weight management, nutrition and exercise education, cooking demonstrations and peer support. Also, each family receives a bag of fresh produce at the biweekly meetings so they can sample unfamiliar foods and try the new recipes and cooking techniques at home.

It is open to any resident of East Ocean View, a coastal community which encompasses high-end homes along East Beach with several blocks separating them from one of Norfolk’s most crime-ridden and impoverished neighborhoods, according to Lynne Zultanky, BSHR director of corporate communications and media relations.

By offering this program free of charge, Bon Secours is continuing the mission of its founding sisters to reach those in need, asserted Joanne Merinar, community wellness lead for Bon Secours Healthy Communities. Passport to Health is a product of the larger initiative “Healthy Communities.” In 2009, BSHR began a 10-year commitment to help the East Ocean View neighborhood, Ms. Merinar said.

Community improvement efforts are focused along Pleasant Avenue and First through 21st Bay streets. Ms. Zultanky said one-fourth of this population falls below the federal poverty level, and at least 1,000 food-insecure people live in the community.

In addition, the area has lacked adequate access to health-care service and health education.

To determine the neighborhood’s needs and desires, BSHR Healthy Communities representatives met with the City of Norfolk, East Ocean View residents, community leaders, and community groups including civic leagues and faith-based organizations, Ms. Merinar said.

As a result of those discussions, BSHR Healthy Communities has made a number of improvements to the community, both medical and physical. More specifically, underinsured residents can now receive free general health care from The Care-a-Van, a mobile physician’s office which visits the neighborhood twice a month. Also, Bon Secours opened a physician’s office in the area, developed Passport to Health and funded and supervised the establishment of a state-of-the-art community garden. Physical improvements included working with volunteers to construct a new playground, refurbish a basketball court and plant bushes to beautify the neighborhood, Ms. Merinar said.

Because East Ocean View is a food desert, one of the first BSHR projects was the creation of a community garden. The garden uses hydroponics powered by solar energy to grow fresh produce and flowers. Some of the plants in the garden are peach and fig trees, grapevines and garden vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants, squash, cucumbers and peppers. Residents work alongside Bon Secours to maintain the garden, and they pick produce for their households as needed.

photo: Rich Loftus, BSHR employee relations director, calculates Jim Phillips' BMI (body mass index).

Rich Loftus, BSHR employee relations director, calculates Jim Phillips' BMI (body mass index).

The garden is often the site of events and festivals. For example, BSHR partners with Five Points Community Farm Market in Norfolk several times a year to offer a produce market where residents can buy fruits and vegetables at a low cost. Also, residents gather at the garden for festivals which feature a variety of activities, some of which are games, music and cooking demonstrations. In a typical year, the events include strawberry, watermelon, apple and pumpkin fests as well as a Christmas in the Garden event in December.

Because the area has a high rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, BSHR developed the Passport to Health program which started in 2013. Ten families participated that first year, and more than double that amount, 24 families, participated in 2014. This year 38 families comprised of approximately 100 individuals completed the program in late July. Collectively the participants from the three sessions have lost more than 400 pounds, Ms. Merinar reported.

The Store House, a ministry of New Life Christian Center, is partnering with BSHR to offer Passport to Health.

“I feel like its’ extremely beneficial,” said Aretha Hammonds, the Passport to Health leader from The Store House. “People are sharing that they feel better and that they’re exercising and doing activities with their children. They have energy to function and to be able to live an enjoyable life with improvement to their health.”

By enlisting the help of The Store House, Ms. Merinar said she hopes Passport to Health will continue without BSHR if necessary.

The next six-month session most likely will begin in January 2016, but Bon Secours will offer follow-up classes in October and November for its former participants in hopes of motivating them to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle during the holidays, Ms. Merinar said.

At the first and last classes of each session, the participants are weighed, have their body mass index calculated, have their girth measured and are tested for cholesterol and glucose levels and high blood pressure. Midway through the program they have their weight and blood pressure checked again, Ms. Merinar explained.

At their biweekly meetings families participate in cooking demonstrations, sample new foods and recipes and learn new exercise techniques. The hour-long classes each have a speaker who addresses a different aspect of nutrition education or exercise. For example, the participants learned how to read labels and select and prepare produce. In addition, they learned how to exercise at a local gym and on their own without expensive equipment. BSHR also funds yoga and Zumba classes which are offered for free at the East Ocean View Community Center, Ms. Merinar said.

Peer support is an integral part of Passport, Ms. Merinar said. Participants encourage each other at classes, and as they make new friends, many get together for exercise and comradery. Many former participants help at subsequent sessions often serving as group leaders. They contact participating families in the weeks between the classes, offering support and encouragement and ensuring they are benefiting from the program.

photo: The Jarmusz family lost the most weight through 2015 Passport to Health. Jennifer and Justin Jarmusz with their son Michael.

The Jarmusz family lost the most weight through 2015 Passport to Health. Jennifer and Justin Jarmusz with their son Michael.

A unique aspect of the program is that both parents and their children participate because it’s important for the entire family to learn to eat healthy and to exercise regularly to make the lifestyle change, Ms. Merinar said.

Elison Elie who participated in Passport with his wife and their two grandchildren agreed with this premise.

“If you include the kids, they’ll see what you do, and they’ll follow what you do,” Mr. Elie said. “My grandchildren have fallen in love with vegetables. Before we didn’t eat a whole lot of vegetables, but now green is always on our plate.”

Frank Wilson, a single father of two teenagers, said he participated in Passport to Health because of the nutrition education.

“The best part is I learned how to make quick, healthy dishes in a hurry,” he said. His 14-year-old daughter Ledora Wilson said that because the program enticed her to eat a vegetable-rich diet, she dropped a clothing size.

“I learned how to eat better, and it made me feel better about myself and my body, and now I like the way I look,” she said.

His 15-year-old son Kylan Wilson said the program made him more aware of the necessity of maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

“This is a great program for you to improve your life for the rest of your life,” he said.

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