Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Monday, September 4, 2017
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
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.”
Saturday, August 22, 2015
Lyons Recreation Center was lit up like a music hall with cars parked helter-skelter along Louisiana Avenue’s neutral ground. No, the free event was not a local audition for “So You Think You Can Dance,” but a competition featuring elementary and middle-school students performing traditional salsa, waltz, tango, merengue and swing dance. The Second Annual MindSteppers Dance Championship showcased public and private school children who have diligently been practicing social dance techniques as an extracurricular activity.
“I did not expect that all the kids could be so excited,” said Claire Couvreur, a teacher-instructor at Lycée Francais.
The competition is the culmination of the MindSteppers Teacher-Training Program at six schools - Joshua Butler Elementary School in Westwego, Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies, Immaculate Conception School in Marrero, International School of Louisiana in the Lower Garden District, Lycée Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans in Uptown and Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers. Nathalie Gomes Adams,
MindSteppers’ co-director, says partner dancing yields many benefits, including improving children’s behavior, building self-confidence and teaching social and life skills such as good communication, etiquette, and tolerance.
Owner of Dance Quarter and a champion swing dancer, Adams was also an instructor with Dancing Classroom, which was featured in the documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about New York City public school children learning to social dance. After moving to New Orleans, Adams created a similar program in 29 Jefferson Parish schools.
Friday night, she supervised the contest among 165 students. Competitors, dressed in fancy costumes, sat expectantly waiting their turns in the spotlight. Judges were already in place. The stage was set with golden trophies to award top dancers while parents and friends assembled in bleacher seats ready to be dazzled.
“They’ve been practicing a month strong,” said Mabel Ray, mother of La’Jae Todd, a fifth-grader at Harriet Tubman. “It’s all she’s been talking about lately.”
First-graders from several schools - girls in red tutus and boys in red suspenders - started swinging to “Frogman” Henry’s anthem, “Ain’t Got No Home.” Swoons to the tune of “Fernando’s Hideaway” elicited audience gasps and shimmies brought a burst of applause.
A first-grade trio from Hope Stone New Orleans rocked out to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” with pantomimed assistance from the sidelines. Every first grader got a prize.
By second and third grade, finalists demonstrated real panache, causing salsa judges to circulate for closer looks.
“I’m loving that they’re doing this with the kids - teaching them other cultures with dancing,” said Leontine Benoit, grandmother to Sanai Benoit who waltzed for Gretna No. 2.
To learn the dances, nine teacher coaches participated in monthly workshops at Dance Quarter, not only to get the steps, but how to be both leader and follower. Maria “Pepa” Lopez had already been a swing dance student herself at Dance Quarter.
“The hardest part is to recruit the boys - they don’t want to touch,” said Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Gretna No. 2. “It takes a month to get them to dance together.”
Her student, Ashley Sutherland, won a prize for salsa. “I love how I could express myself while dancing,” Ashley said.
Krista Rae Szaflarski, who heads Harriet Tubman’s after-school enrichment programs, used the school motto of “courage and grit” to encourage students’ commitment to dancing. Five Tubman couples placed in the competition.
“The kids were better dancers than myself by the end,” Szaflarski admitted.
“I expected them to like it, but didn’t expect them to fall in love with salsa and merengue!”
Monday, August 17, 2015
By Mary Rickard
New Orleans Advocate
A cluster of homes near the Industrial Canal, including that of Errol and Esther Joseph, is an oasis among scattered plots of willowy grass. A crew of volunteers wearing purple lowernine.org T-shirts stream in and out the couple’s house, laying down floor tiles, sanding and painting walls, informally supervised by Errol Joseph.
“I really like working on that house because it will make him so happy to live there,” said Kevin Panman, a recent graduate of The Hague University of Applied Sciences on a three-month tourist visa. Since 2008, visitors from 30 countries have signed up with lowernine.org, a local nonprofit utilizing volunteer labor to revitalize the historic neighborhood.
The Josephs named their home rebuilding effort “Project Grace & Mercy.” Ten years after 17-foot flood waters inundated their neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, the couple will finally be back home by Aug. 29.
“It is coming together by God’s grace,” said the 64-year-old licensed contractor.
Errol Joseph “went in circles” for five years, trying to negotiate with Allstate Insurance, The Road Home Program, and Federal Emergency Management Agency before meeting Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org. He had been unable to get a loan for reconstruction because authorities had already made plans to abandon the Lower Ninth Ward, and his mortgage company demanded to be paid in full right away.
“The land had essentially no value,” he said. In the meantime, the Josephs were forced to rent at more than twice the amount of their mortgage.
But in 2013, lowernine.org volunteers began working on the Josephs’ new home.
With an operating budget of less than $150,000 year, the nonprofit has fully rebuilt 75 houses and renovated 200 more. Paul estimates lowernine.org has contributed an estimated $8 million in volunteer labor without which most families could never have afforded to rebuild.
The nonprofit welcomes and houses workers of all skill levels from across the country and around the world for a few days or a few months. Many volunteers were not yet teenagers when Hurricane Katrina struck the coast.
“At first, it was just me getting my home together. Now, it’s a ministry for me,” Errol Joseph said. “I get with these kids, they make me happy.”
Panman, 25, was shocked to see so many homes abandoned. When a storm caused massive flooding in the Netherlands in 1953, the Dutch government quickly stepped up to repair the damage.“It opens your eyes that this could happen,” he said.
Jeongmoon Lee, a college student from South Korea was also surprised by the lack of progress. His country moves quickly after a tsunami devastates its coast.
“It’s been 10 years now and I don’t really understand how the restoration is this little,” Lee said.
Despite hardships, the Josephs were determined to return to the neighborhood where his family lived for generations.
“I used to come and sit on the porch and just reminisce about my dad, my neighbors,” he said. Miss Effie would always be cooking and baking goodies to share. Miss Geniva had all the local gossip, and “Miss Almina made the best Heavenly Hash in the world.” The place holds special meaning for him.
To fund more lowernine.org home rebuilding projects, Alex Goldberg, a James Madison University junior and lowernine.org summer volunteer, launched a #50States Campaign online campaign to raise $1,000 per state.
“You don’t really know until you’ve lived here and seen it for yourself. It strikes an emotional nerve,” Goldberg said. The experience helped him decide to pursue a nonprofit career.
“This solidified what I want to do with my life,” he said.