COLUMBIA — Dennis Hunt, the custodial crew leader at Stephens College, quit smoking a year ago but wanted to improve his health even more.
When he heard about the college starting a health and wellness challenge in August, he decided to enlist.
"I joined the challenge to get healthier for my grandkids," Hunt said. "I want to live a little bit longer for them."
He has since lost 10 pounds and is now a regular noon-day walker, a routine established as part of the new wellness program.
The challenge came when Stephens College President Dianne Lynch met an 87-year-old alumna who pledged $1 million if faculty and staff would lose a combined 250 pounds by Jan 1.
The challenge officially began Sept. 1 with 107 participating employees. Their weight loss will be computed at the end of the year, but the last total included about half of the employees. Together, they had already shed 180 pounds.
"It is a moving target since many of the participants are waiting until the end to weigh in," said Brenda McSherry, the nurse practitioner at Stephens.
In the last 117 days, many have also started walking, eaten healthier meals and signed up for aerobics classes.
“This is not about the weight,” Lynch said at the beginning of the semester."It’s about health. It’s a lifestyle change.
“The donation will help Stephens, yes, but we are also helping ourselves."
Pam Beerup, assistant director of recruitment in graduate and continuing studies at Stephens, began her diet and exercise plan before the Stephens challenge and lost 60 pounds.
Beerup said she has dropped an additional 18 pounds since the challenge began. Moreover, she began teaching weekly Pilates and low-impact aerobics classes on campus during the day.
The Pilates class is restricted to about 10 people, she said, and the sessions are usually full.
“This challenge promotes healthier lifestyles,” Beerup said. “I wanted to participate in this so I could show people how beneficial lifestyle changes can be."
Prodded by the challenge, Stephens dining halls have also introduced healthier choices such as lean proteins, steamed vegetables and whole grains, Erin Milek, the food service director said.
“We have a bar for fresh fruit, yogurts and toppings," she said. “This was something the students actually asked for."
Stations where food is made to order have replaced pre-cooked entrees. An Action Station offers fruit smoothies, sushi and wraps; the Asian Food Station provides Chinese dishes; the Grill Station has hamburgers and hot sandwiches; and the Home Zone Station serves macaroni and cheese, chicken and other "comfort foods."
The stations keep food fresh, and there is less waste because students can order the amount of food they want, Milek said.
Although eating healthy is encouraged, Stephens opted to keep other popular meals that may have more calories.
"We kept the pizza and pasta bar," Milek said. "We didn't want to take away students' options."
In addition, explicit food labeling in the cafeterias helps guide students and staff to smarter food choices and highlights nutrient-rich food, Milek said.
The changes are permanent and will continue after the challenge ends, she said.
Dixie Barnes, the administrative assistant in health services at Stephens and a retired nurse, has lost 15 pounds since the challenge began and thinks setting an example for Stephens students is an important aspect of the program.
"We have to be role models for our students. Embracing a lifestyle of health and wellness sets a good example for them," she said. "If we aren't being healthy, how can we ask them to?"
Barnes shares weekly recipes with faculty and staff, and helps teach Stephens students about lifestyle changes and weight management.
"Mindful eating is important," Barnes said. "I choose foods that are better for my body."
She believes the challenge has done more than bring awareness to healthier habits.
"The staff and faculty are much closer than before, and I know staff that I never knew before," Barnes said. "We're all in this together. We have the same focus at the same time."
"This challenge is for a community. We're like a family."