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Overcoming diabetes through churches in Columbia's African-American community

  • 8 min to read

COLUMBIA — Verna Laboy's paternal grandmother lost both legs to diabetes complications. Very recently, one of her cousins lost a leg — also to diabetes. Yet another cousin is on dialysis, a complication of the same disease. 

"This is personal for me," she says. 

She doesn't pretend to be an expert — that's not where the passion comes from. She, herself, was "on the fast track" to diabetes and has found it hard to stick with an exercise or diet.

All of that has made Laboy a passionate force behind Live Well By Faith, a wellness program launched one year ago through the Columbia/Boone County Health and Human Services Department for black churches in Boone County. 

Data from a county-wide survey in 2013 showed that of the 9,300 people living with diabetes in Boone County, black people were four times more likely to die from complications related to the disease than their white counterparts. Nationally, black women are just under two times more likely than white women to die from diabetes complications, while black men are about one and a half times more likely than white men to die from diabetes complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The health disparity is a national problem. Approximately 29 million people in the United States live with diabetes, according to the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services. Studies have shown that the engagement of church leaders fosters trust and improves success in addressing health disparities.

Type 2 diabetes — the more common form of the chronic disease — occurs when the level of blood glucose (sugar) in a person's body is higher than normal because insulin ceases to be produced properly, according to the American Diabetes Association. As a result, the body's cells are starved for energy and the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart can be effected. Factors associated with diabetes include obesity, a family history of the disease and race and ethnicity. 

Verna Laboy saves leftover food

Verna Laboy saves leftover food April 2 after the Live Well By Faith cooking class. Laboy runs the Live Well By Faith wellness program in Columbia, which aims to address health disparities in minority communities, primarily in church settings.

Living Well By Faith

Laboy, a self-proclaimed "health evangelist" and community activist, has been working with black churchgoers since April 2016 to educate people about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles, to encourage healthy eating and to provide programs for long-term success in health management. 

"Food is important to this culture, and it's cooked the wrong way. It's a lethal digestion," Laboy said. "It's an addiction that needs to be addressed, a very unhealthy addiction. We need to increase our health literacy."

Laboy uses the word "bulldozer" to describe how she's paving the way towards bringing down the rates of diabetes and heart disease among blacks in Boone County. 

"I don't have a health background. I'm not a personal trainer. I'm not a nutritionist," she said.

Her own struggle to change her lifestyle has been a source of insight.

"But I've been on this journey for years, unable to stay consistent," she said.

She and other "health ministers" at the Live Well By Faith-accredited churches are "looking for people that are dealing with the challenges themselves to adopt (healthy) behaviors and see the changes and take people on the journey with them," she said. 

Laboy enthusiastically and passionately evangelizes on a healthy lifestyle.

"Verna's not doing the work," she said, slipping into third person, as she often does. "You have to do the work. This is your church. This is your congregation. This is your family. This is your life." 

What studies show

Diabetes can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, amputations and death if not managed well, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Lifestyle factors and genetics are the primary influences of type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in 2012. Type 2 diabetes involves insulin resistance and declining insulin production and components of the disease include physical inactivity, sedentary lifestyle, cigarette smoking and a generous consumption of alcohol. 

Maintaining a healthy diet for the prevention or treatment of diabetes combined with physical activity is associated with lowered risks of diabetes, according to a study published by the Journal of Education and Health Promotion. Eating smaller serving sizes and cutting calories improves insulin sensitivity, and regular physical activity helps with weight loss and may also decrease blood pressure. 

Fifty to 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes have high blood pressure, according to a study published in the Current Atherosclerosis Reports Journal. High blood pressure can be the result of insulin resistance which arises due to genetics and obesity, among other environmental factors. 

Increasing health literacy entails learning about what types of foods are recommended for healthful living, what types of food to avoid and fitness. Focusing meal planning around nutrient dense foods such as vegetables, beans, whole grains, fruit, non-fat dairy, fish and lean meats is one way to decrease the risk of diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

But the church is an especially important institution for many black Americans.

Frances Logan, Shae Brown, and Mary B. Warren wash their hands

From left, Frances Logan, Shae Brown and Mary B. Warren wash their hands during the Live Well By Faith cooking class April 2 in Columbia. Each attendee washed their hands for 20 seconds, which was a technique they reviewed at the start of the workshop. 

Cooking for self care

Annabelle Simmons, a health minister at St. Luke United Methodist Church, joined the Live Well By Faith team . After she took a healthy lifestyle class through the program, she said her eyes were opened about health.

But she wasn't sure exactly which of the possible Life Well by Faith courses she would teach.

There it was: "Cooking Matters." She thought to herself, "I know how to cook," but she had to become certified to teach it. That entailed learning about how to hold a knife properly, how to slice correctly, among other kitchen skills. 

The healthy cooking and eating topics changed her habits: learning how to read food labels, how much food is in a serving, the calorie count, the protein count, etc. "And now, every time I go shopping, I'm looking at the labels, so I know it works," she said.

The class also teaches people how to cook healthy food on a budget, Laboy said: "They can see how cheap they can cook good food, healthy food."

In addition to what she learned in "Cooking Matters," Simmons also learned how to take a blood pressure reading, which she does on Sundays free if church members ask her to do so. The health ministers at St. Luke also signed off on a water policy, requiring that water be offered with every meal offered at a church event.

"People were going, 'But I want punch, I want coffee,'" Simmons said.

A "no fried foods" policy is also in place.

And yet, people still gather around the table.

"We get to fellowship with one another around food, preparing the food together," Simmons said.

Dee Campbell-Carter, a lifestyle coach for the health ministry at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, said the church will start a "Cooking Matters" class later this year. The health ministry at Friendship Baptist offers blood pressure checks every second and fourth Sunday before and after service lets out as well as "SweatSuit Sundays," when the congregation stops in the middle of service to do high- and low-impact exercises to gospel music. 

"The thing we're doing is building a faith community that's cross-pollinating," Laboy said. This means that if a class is offered at one church, all the other churches are invited to send participants.  

Dee Campbell-Carter and Dorothy Slaughter tend to a garden plot

Dee Campbell-Carter, left, and Dorothy Slaughter tend to a garden plot April 17 at Friendship Baptist's community garden. Campbell-Carter is in charge of the garden, which came to fruition in January.

Promoting cross-pollination 

As the sun set last week, Campell-Carter strolled between garden plots behind Friendship Missionary Baptist filled with budding greens, tomatoes and peppers while bees hovered over dandelion-covered grass. Campbell-Carter and community member Dorothy Slaughter tilled the soil, pulling weeds and watering mustard and collard greens and kale. 

The garden is called "Friendship Gardens," and the food harvested in the plots will be used in the "Cooking Matters" class when it begins.

Half-built garden beds lay ready for the next stage: being raised on stilts for planting. They will be waist high to accommodate children or those who use wheelchairs, Cambell-Carter said.

The garden is a place where church members can grow healthy produce to take home and cook.

Cambell-Carter described Slaughter as the go-to gardener. She taught the community how to dig weeds out from their root with a simple tools like a plastic knife, and that coffee grounds are a good fertilizer and deterrent for some pests.

Calvin Miles, another member of Friendship Baptist Church, is the handy man on site. He put the finishing touches on the community garden sign his son painted that will stand over their "harvest trailer." He also built the raised flats for youth or those with disabilities.

Healthy food fits with his spiritual life, Miles said: "Body, mind and spirit. They all come together."

Calvin Miles paints Friendship Baptist's Friendship Garden sign

Calvin Miles paints Friendship Missionary Baptist's Friendship Garden sign on April 17. Miles' son painted the majority of the sign, while Miles added the finishing touches.

To keep it growing

"When I see things like (Friendship Gardens) take off…it's just everything," Laboy said.

But not every health ministry takes root as easily — nor does every program. 

Paula Williams chaired the board for the Boone County Minority Health Network until it disbanded last year. The network began in 2005 with the purpose of addressing health disparities. It ultimately died due to lack of funding. 

"There was no full-time, dedicated staff to keep up with the grant writing," Williams said. 

Live Well By Faith is on a two-year grant from the Boone County Commission, and Laboy is optimistic about getting it renewed. "I'm letting anyone out there that's doing this kind of work know that Verna is available to take this to the next level," she said.

There's one year left on the grant. Then, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services will re-apply. "We are just getting started," Laboy said. 

She recognizes that it takes time to change a culture.

"We have to make different choices," she said. "We're living longer. Do you want to live in a nursing home? Do you want illness to take you out in such a way where someone who doesn't want to take care of you is forced to take care of you? It's a tough conversation to have, but someone has to put it out there."

Churches around Boone County are having that conversation. Laboy hopes "Cooking Matters" will be offered in 15 African-American churches in the upcoming year. Urban Empowerment Ministries has a Weight Watchers program with 22 members representing five different church communities.

Five other churches are interested in the upcoming "Eat Healthy, Be Active" program, Laboy said. She and six trained lifestyle coaches from those health ministries will be meeting to talk about bringing the curriculum to those five churches. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services has a "Shazzy Fitness" program that brings community members together to work out to gospel music.

"These are small ways we're chipping away at the health literacy and health consciousness of people," Laboy said.

Dorothy Slaughter removes weeds from her garden plot

Dorothy Slaughter removes weeds from her garden plot on the evening of April 17. The garden, a part of the Live Well By Faith program at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, is open to community members to grow healthy produce to use in their meals.

Not every day is easy

"This is the hardest work I've ever done," Laboy said. "And it's taking care of myself. Why is that so hard to do? Because we're going against the grain; it's going against the culture," she said. "Great-grandma made the biscuits this way. Grandma made the greens this way. Mom makes the cobbler this way. So our tastes have adjusted, but it's killing us."

There are healthier ways of doing things, Simmons said. "You start developing a habit of being healthy rather than choosing the cake. It's been a long time since I've had cake, now. I want cake; I love cake! But it's an unhealthy choice."

Laboy shared similar sentiments. "You've got to be able to tell yourself no," she said.

"This is a lifestyle transformation change for me and I have to do it. If no one else does it, Verna has to show up for Verna."

Laboy shares her experiences on the Live Well By Faith Facebook page regularly, reminding those who are on the journey with her that they can succeed even if some days are hard. "Victory I make it to the gym this morning and boy was it a struggle. I wanted to quit!" she shared in a recent post.

"Setbacks are set-ups for a come back!" she wrote in an earlier post.

Campbell-Carter faced a setback as well. "I had to creatively regroup my workout plan when my (Activity and Recreation Center) membership expired last December," she said. Her insurance stopped reimbursing her for the membership, but she said she knew she wanted to stay active. 

Campbell-Carter ultimately chose to start budgeting for weekend classes, and during the week she does yoga, gardening or goes on a "PRAYER walk," which is the term used in the Friendship Baptist health ministry to describe a neighborhood walk a group or individual can participate in. "It's great to feel increases in my muscle strength and tone. Also, I sleep so good at night," she said. 

Laboy sees the proof at the gym, not just in herself but in others.

"When I'm at the gym working out and I see some of my diabetes self-management folks walking around on the track or working out on the equipment, my heart just smiles," she said.

But there's so much more to do. "I can't just plant the seed and leave," Laboy said. "I have to keep coming back and watering it, and when I come, I'm coming with a tank of water and fertilizer." 

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed

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  • Spring 2017 public safety and health reporter. I am a junior studying magazine writing.

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