COLUMBIA — On an early November morning, Trinity Reese plops a scale on the ground in the parking lot of Stephens Lake Park.
She ushers five women over to the scale, and each takes a turn stepping up to be weighed. Most are apprehensive about the total, but Reese offers words of encouragement as she jots down the numbers.
"All right ladies, this is the day that we start coming together," Reese tells them.
All six women then take off for a lap around the park. One lap is 1.7 miles; many have never walked that far.
Without warning, two people dressed as Batman and Superman intersect their path.
"Are you here for the 5K?" Batman asks, referring to a race scheduled that day.
Chuckling, Reese replies, "Not today, but maybe next time."
Reese, 47, organizes walks like this one at Stephens Lake Park as part of her effort to promote healthier living, especially among black women in Columbia.
Reese, herself a black woman, is the founder of Fusion Pathways with a mission to help women improve their health.
She suggests weight-loss methods for women to try together and boost their fitness. She is also introducing ways to educate black women about healthier food choices.
Reese has a family history of health setbacks, including her own battle with chronic asthma. As a teenager, she struggled with addiction, and her mother endured a long crusade against cancer.
Now on the other side of those difficulties, Reese strives to be a role model and support for those dealing with similar problems.
"It takes women to be that backbone," she said. "If we're not healthy, we can't teach our children, we can't support our spouses. If you are not 100 percent, you have nothing."
Promoting good health
On a typical day, Reese arrives at her office on Vandiver Drive early and stays late. A small whiteboard hangs on the wall above her desk where she has scribbled her appointments for the week.
She pounds away on her computer keyboard, dashing off emails and scrolling through Facebook messages. Because her business just launched in March, marketing is a priority for the company right now, she said.
Reese started the company to assist clients in three areas — diet, exercise and emotional support. She works closely with them, often meeting in person or chatting over the phone to move beyond any obstacles.
Fusion Pathways aggregates the health resources of several local and national companies to give clients a wide range of individualized plans to choose from, Reese said. She also collaborates with local trainers to help her clients work out properly and effectively. Some services require payment, but others are free, she said.
Several women have already reaped the benefits of her help, including Karmeile Talton. Talton met Reese seven months ago and began collaborating with her to break bad eating and exercise habits and construct a healthier lifestyle.
Talton lives with fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread, persistent soreness throughout the body. Before meeting Reese, she weighed 319 pounds.
After embarking on an exercise regimen and diet plan, Talton no longer takes her fibromyalgia medication and weighs 280 pounds. She credits Reese with the transformation, and the two have become close friends.
"She's been my support," Talton said. "If I feel like I'm getting off-track, I can call her and talk to her about it."
Changing the numbers
Reese worries about the future health of black women. She said she wants to galvanize individuals to change their mindsets and help them quit finding excuses for unhealthy behaviors.
"When you decide to take control of your life, it starts from changing those old habits," she said.
Statistics back up Reese's concerns. Black women consistently have the highest diagnosis and death rates from heart disease and stroke, illnesses where being overweight can increase the likelihood of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease killed 35,344 African American women in 2008, according to the CDC.
Between 2005 and 2008, among females ages 20 to 39, the prevalence of obesity was highest among African Americans, the CDC reported. Additionally, 54.2 percent of African-American women over 20 were considered obese between 2007 and 2010.
"Within the black community, we are at that top percentile when it comes to obesity and sickness, unfortunately," Reese said. "My mission is to team up with organizations who are trying to put a dent in that number."
An unhealthy past
She said her dedication to a healthy lifestyle "has always been at the forefront."
Health became a top priority after she confronted severe addictions early in her life. As a teenager, Reese said she abused cocaine and alcohol, overcoming her substance dependence only after she became pregnant with her daughter when she was 21.
"I know what it's like to be strung out and on the street," she said. "I want to talk to people and let them know they will be OK, and they can overcome it, too."
Adding to her family's history of health problems, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer when Reese was 11, and three doctors gave her a terminal prognosis. She watched her mother change all of her eating habits — cut out red meats, eat only organic fruits and vegetables and partake in cleanses meant to purify her body of toxins by eliminating unhealthful food and drink.
Six months later, the same doctors pronounced her mother cancer free.
Following her mother's example, in 2005, Reese changed the way she ate after surgery that removed a 6-pound tumor from her abdomen. Left with lingering chronic health issues, she began a regimen similar to her mother's, eating organic foods and participating in cleanses. Since that surgery, she said she has not had many significant health issues.
Reese decided to help other black women achieve health and success.
"My mission is not about making money; it's about changing lives," Reese said. "If we don't do something, more and more people are going to die."
Developing a healthier community
She encourages the people she works with to "dream big," as she does.
By Feb. 1, 2014, Reese aims to have 500 women walking together for better health in GirlTrek, an exercise resource and partner.
She would also like to ramp up education about healthier living in the community. Working with churches, salons, nonprofit organizations and clothing boutiques, Reese hopes to provide monetary incentives and other rewards — such as a free day at the spa — for people who achieve weight loss goals.
Offering prizes helps keep people motivated and happy, making it easier for them to permanently change their lifestyle, Reese said.
Although she said knows she cannot change statistics overnight, Reese is determined to be a catalyst for eating well and exercising and to set an example for black women.
"When I look around and see people that are comfortable with being extremely overweight," she said, "that's the mindset I want to change."