Front: Sherry Lawyer, Dorothy Hubbard; back: Rosie Lawyer, Olvina Pointer
By John Greenfield
In less than two years the WalkForce walking club at the Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., has grown from a handful of members to more than 100. The club is working to build a stronger East Garfield Park community by encouraging seniors and people with health problems to get physical activity and meet their neighbors.
The club meets every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 5 pm at the conservatory. Besides strolling the paths inside the greenhouse buildings, surrounded by lush tropical foliage, members take walks in the neighboring City Garden and down neighborhood streets, spreading the word about the club by hanging flyers. Members can also participate in aerobics, dance and yoga classes through WalkForce.
Vote With Your Feet heard about the club through Active Transportation Alliance, which is partnering with the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, along with other community organizations to produce the Open Streets (formerly Sunday Parkways) ciclovía on August 1.
I dropped by the City Garden on a Tuesday evening to talk with Rishona Taylor, who manages WalkForce as part of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance’s New Communities Program, one of 16 such neighborhood revitalization programs started by Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC).
VWYF: How long has WalkForce been around?
Taylor: We started the program in September 2007. It was strictly word of mouth with a lot of help from Advocate Bethany Hospital and the 11th District CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) program helped a lot in promoting the program. So it started with a few of us walking through the neighborhood, doing city services, walking in the conservatory, which is especially nice because it’s a tropical environment.
There’s been study after study that shows that being in a natural environment helps your stress level and helps you calm down and relax. It’s a purer source of oxygen than we can get walking outside with the car traffic. And the beauty of the conservatory allows you to take all of these things into your senses while you’re getting exercise. It might be subliminal but it helps people exercise longer. And you have your favorites in the conservatory so you make it a goal to hurry up and get back to your favorite room.
When we started we had a special sculpture exhibit going on, “Niki in the Garden,” so our walkers were like, “Let me hurry up so I can get back to this room or this sculpture.” And it was an outside and inside sculpture so it was really enjoyable.
So that December, after Bethany switched over from being a traditional hospital in the Advocate system to being an acute care facility, they made a commitment to the community of $1 million over the course of 14 years to help with disparities within the community: health, safety, education and more. So we applied and were awarded funding, and that enabled us to get some marketing materials and incentives to promote WalkForce.
We were walking through the neighborhood anyway, so we started putting flyers on people’s doors. And that April we had an abundance of people join. We went from seven people to about 45 registered participants.
The program is solely funded by Bethany Hospital’s community fund. They have been wonderful – they love the program. We have had such a flow of people join the people that I under-budgeted when I joined the original program but Bethany was able to tap into some additional funding to help us out. As of today we have 105 registered walkers. They all don’t come every day but we’ve seen those 105 people over the last six months.
VWYF: What type of people show up for this? Is it mostly seniors or people from all walks of life?
Taylor: It’s all ages. It’s mostly women, mostly African-American. We do have a few males but they’re either walking with their significant other or a parent. We do get families with children. I didn’t want this to be something where the women would have to choose between their families and their health so it’s definitely kid-friendly.
We get a lot of young kids, like four-year olds, and they want to walk. Sometimes it’s hilarious because they’re running away from their parents like, “Come on, come catch us.” But sometimes we’ll do activities with them in the children’s garden just so their parents can focus on what they’re doing and spend a little time on themselves.
VWYF: What kind of activities might you have in the kids’ garden?
Taylor: We have a slide, a giant bee that teaches them about pollination, there a giant seed where they can learn about what’s going on as seeds are growing. We have a soil pit where kids can get their first experience with soil, so we have toys and dinosaurs and stuff they can bury. And then we do family programming as well, so some times there’ll be a dig in the soil pit or there’ll be a leaf pounding [dying a piece of cloth with chlorophyll to make a bookmark]. So it’s a nice educational experience that’s interactive and fun.
VWYF: So you guys do three times of walks: inside the conservatory; laps around the City Garden and you also do walks in the neighborhood?
Taylor: Yes. That ties into the community portion of this because the whole program is about beautifying yourself but also beautifying the community where you live. So by walking in a group you’re safer but we’re also thinking at the same time of city service needs. And the 11th District CAPS takes those reports we generate and gives them to the city. So we’ve had block cleanups and some of those empty lots have been turned into community gardens. So it’s definitely had an impact on the community as well as each one of the members.
And then there’s a social aspect. Because some of the people here actually live on the same block and but they didn’t know each other. Some of them said, “I really need to lose weight and this sounds like a cool activity so I’ll come alone or drag a buddy.” But over time they’ve all become close and as new people join they become part of the family. And then they check you because if someone notices that you’re gaining weight they’re like, “What are you doing.” So it’s definitely a reality check to keep you on your goals.
VWYF: Do you have any incentives, like the Walk Across Illinois program [which encourages people to walk a total of 167 miles, the width of the state, www.walkacrossillinois.org]? Do you have people keep track of their miles? Do you have prizes for people who complete a certain amount of walking?
Taylor: All of the above. When they join they all get a pedometer. It’s an Omron pocket odometer. Even if you have thick clothes on it accurately tracks your steps if you keep it in your pocket, which helps with a lot of the ladies. They sign into a log when they arrive and begin walking. When they feel it’s time to go, any time up to 7 pm, they log their steps on that sheet. It’s a way for me to keep attendance and keep track of their progress. So far each person walks an average of 3.2 miles per session.
VWYF: So that’s about an hour of walking?
Taylor: It depends on the person. The two ladies that just walked past, they both have had hip replacements but that doesn’t stop them. They’ll walk the full two hours and get their 11,000 steps in. They’ll keep it moving. They’re very inspirational.
VWYF: Do you have any success stories you’re particularly proud of – anyone who improved their health or otherwise met a goal?
Taylor: Definitely. The lady that just walked past with the cane, Miss Canser, she’s the best. She had a titanium rod put in her leg, her hip replaced, just getting it all re-done because of different health issues she was facing. I remember last year her leg was starting to bend and it actually broke and she kept walking. A lot of use were like, “Please stop walking, please go to the doctor.” That’s how we found out it was broken. But she just said, “I need to come back and walk.” So she’s very dedicated.
We held a challenge to try and get the participants to lose weight and she was actually my biggest loser. It was a ten-week challenge and she lost the highest percentage of her body weight, she lost 19 pounds. And another one of my ladies came in second in terms of her body weight percentage – she lost 26 pounds.
And they were very grateful for that and I was proud of them, so as a way of saying congratulations they were both given gift certificates to the spa. ‘Cause I know they don’t take care of themselves. Kids come first, family comes first, like most women in the world. I wanted them to take a moment to take care of themselves.
VWYF: Are there any other activities associated with the program?
Taylor: Yes. As one of the incentives of the program we do some type of aerobics now and then. So in the beginning one of the first things we did was aquatic aerobics at Homan Square Park. I chose that one because you can get a really great workout in the pool and because you’re in the water it’s low-impact on your knees. So it was very helpful for the ladies.
After that we started having regular aerobics classes with officer Keith Spurlin from the 11th District. He’s a personal trainer. I like Keith – he does not let you slack. He hasn’t been able to teach for a while and the ladies are like, “When are we going to get Keith back?” And he’s like, “I miss you guys.” So we’re working to get him back for the summer.
One of the things that we instituted at the conservatory is our Healthy Lifestyles classes. Right now we offer several classes on different nights at 6 pm. On Monday nights we have belly dance. On Wednesday nights we offer classes on stepping [ballroom dancing to R & B music] and on Thursday nights we have yoga.
VWYF: Why is walking an especially good activity for people in the neighborhood?
Taylor: As long as you have the ability to walk you have no excuse not to. The fact the walking club is free takes away another excuse not to exercise. There’s no membership fee, so come on. Walking can be done inside or outside very safely and you can get a very good workout. Plus, the conservatory’s a year-round, all-weather venue. Chicago’s not the prettiest city in the winter. It could be gray and snowy outside and you get to escape to a tropical environment.
VWYF: How many miles of paths are there inside the conservatory?
Taylor: A lap around the conservatory is a quarter of a mile so I’ve been telling them to give me ten laps or two and a half miles. And we’ve been building on that. We recently cranked it up to three miles. Some people have gone up to four and five miles.
But you know people really are starting to promote walking – doctors and the American Heart Association. The heart association had a “Two for One” campaign going on where two hours of walking added one hour to your life expectancy.
VWYF: Wow, that’s quite a statistic.
Afterwards, I did a few brisk laps around the garden with some of the participants, like Sherry Lawyer, her mother Rosie and sister Sheila, and friends Olvina Porter and Dorothy Hubbard.
Henry B. Roberson and Doris J. Roberson
VWYF: Sherry, what do you like about the walking club? Why do you keep showing up for it?
Sherry Lawyer: I had no choice. I had a stroke on New Years Day and my doctor said I had to walk to keep my blood pressure down. That was two years ago and I’ve been walking ever since.
VWYF: It’s funny because you look like a very healthy person.
Sherry Lawyer: Well I thought I was. But two years ago I was lying in my bed and I couldn’t speak. So I got up and rushed myself to the hospital and I’d had a stroke. A month after that I had an aneurysm. So they said it was very important for me to get some exercise and my cousin told me about WalkForce.
VWYF: You got your mother and sister involved?
Sherry Lawyer: My mother, my sister, my two cousins and three of my friends are all involved. They’re not all here today but they do walk.
VWYF: What do you like about walking as a form of exercise?
Sherry Lawyer: I don’t like it[laughs]. I do it because I have to. But it’s fun showing up for the club and I enjoy meeting the new faces. We get attached to each other. When people don’t show up we call each other and say, “What’s the matter, what’s going on?” And I like the belly dance and yoga classes. And we’re trying to get more people in the neighborhood involved. It’s important for everybody to get some kind of exercise.