Charlene Buckner wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to go to work at Lil Dizzy’s Cafe from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. and perpetually felt tired. She had sensed “something was going on” with her body, but “didn’t connect weight with fatigue.”
But over the past three years, Buckner has lost 130 pounds, first by changing her eating habits and then pledging to walk 30 minutes a day as a member of GirlTrek. When she first began exercising, Buckner was unable to scale the incline of the Lower Ninth Ward levee. “Now, I run up and down,” she bragged.
“I’m in love with my levee. It’s so soothing and motivating. It’s stuff I can’t really pay for.”
GirlTrek, a national organization of more than 35,000 Black women, aims to re-establish walking as a tradition, healing bodies, inspiring daughters and reclaiming neighborhood streets. The nonprofit’s three-year goal is to inspire 1 million women to walk every Saturday morning and 250,000 to walk daily.
Buckner not only changed her own life, but became one of 10 GirlTrek neighborhood captains mentoring other women wanting to make lifestyle change.
“I’ve learned so much about food and am teaching women what I’ve learned. We eat a bunch of food that clogs our arteries,” Buckner said.
GirlTrek City Captain Onika Jervis started the New Orleans chapter after moving from New York where she was a marathon runner. Everyone can’t race, but the GirlTrek goal is just to get women up and moving, she said.
“Black women are traditionally caregivers, caring for families and working multiple jobs, Jervis said. “We know we need to exercise and be fit, but just don’t have time.”
“Exercise has become so technically advanced with pilates and spinning that it’s intimidating and seems expensive, but there’s a park and there’s streets,” said Jervis, emphasizing the importance of accessibility.
GirlTrek is a grassroots movement, which partners with churches, schools, community organizations and local companies, to address an unprecedented health crisis. More than 80 percent of Black women are overweight and 59 percent are obese, dying younger and at higher rates of preventable disease than any group of American women. Members recruit other women one-to-one and provide support to succeed via Facebook, Twitter and texting.
GirlTrek’s mission is not about recreation, however, but a campaign for healing grounded in civil rights history and principles. In March, for example, 65 New Orleans members met up with nine other groups to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
“That really ignited New Orleans,” Jervis said about reliving Martin Luther King’s historic march.
The New Orleans chapter conducted a tour of the historic African-American neighborhood of Treme from Congo Square to St. Augustine Catholic Church, and in September, 200 members attended GirlTrek Mountaintop organizer retreat in Denver. Coincidentally, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy unveiled “Step It Up,” a call to action, encouraging walking and walkable communities. Daily walking reduces the risk of heart disease by 50 percent and diabetes by 58 percent, as well as significantly improving mental health.
"We are facing an explosion of chronic illnesses. Seven out of ten deaths can be prevented by lifestyle changes including physical activity such as walking,” Murthy said.
Sheila Collins who attended the leadership conference, had suffered from Spinal Stenosis characterized by degenerating vertebral discs. In February, after surgery, she began walking to rebuild muscles and reduce her pain. Now a neighborhood leader, she often sends text messages to keep others going.
“It’s more enjoyable when you can walk with somebody - you can talk. It’s even better in a group,” Collins said. “I love the camaraderie and sisterhood.”