Health and hope

Health and hope

UF, Florida A&M launch institute to promote better health, job training

By Czerne M. Reid

Open Door Ministry parishioners Valerie Littles, Shantelle Dorsey, Drilisa Thompkins, Rachel Jones and Betty James participate in an exercise class led by Trollyn Gillins./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

Winter chills couldn’t keep a handful of southeast Gainesville parishioners away from church one dreary evening in January. They didn’t want to miss their time of fellowship.

“We have some sweet potato pie here, macaroni and cheese there and some collard greens and some dressing back here,” Trollyn Gillins said to the group.

Princie Mikel serves mixed vegetables to Frederick Brown, while Pastor J.W. Honeysucker looks on. The pastor and his congregation at Greater Fort Clarke Missionary Baptist Church are participating in Dr. Carolyn Tucker’s Health-Smart Behavior Program that promotes better nutrition and increased physical activity./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

“So we have to get all of that off,” she added, pointing to her stomach, back and sides.

For an hour, Gillins, 49, led the group through a series of jumping jacks, leg lifts, crunches and other moves she had learned from another church member at Open Door Ministries.

In the year since she started going to church to exercise, Gillins has been able to stop taking one of her two blood pressure medicines, on the recommendation of her doctor. Before, she used to get exhausted easily, but now she can walk three miles with ease and line dance for more than an hour.

Now, thanks to a $600,000 grant to UF and the Florida A&M University, more people like Gillins will gain skills and knowledge that can help them take charge of their health.

The award, from the State University System Board of Governors, funded the launch of the Community Health Workers Training and Research Institute, which seeks to help people improve their health while acquiring marketable skills that can be translated into job opportunities within health care.

Photo by Jesse S. Jones

The institute will train people to become community health workers who can educate themselves and others about healthful behaviors. This will increase the supply of health workers and boost the chances for unemployed, underemployed or disabled persons to find work, particularly in rural areas with high proportions of ethnic minorities.

“Not only will the institute help Florida address its obesity and other health-related problems, it will also help address the state’s unemployment situation,” said co-principal investigator Carolyn Tucker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and community health and family medicine.

Folakemi Odedina, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Pharmacy and outreach director for the College of Medicine’s Prostate Disease Center, and Cynthia Harris, Ph.D., a professor at Florida A&M, are the other principal investigators in the study. Alma Dixon, Ed.D., R.N., leads the efforts at Bethune Cookman University, one of the research partners.

“This grant is the fruit of more than 10 years of research partnership between UF and Florida A&M, the only public historically black college and university in the state of Florida,” said UF College of Pharmacy Dean William Riffee, Ph.D. “We are proud that our college is a part of this effort to end health-care disparities in our state.”

The training will center around a health education approach Tucker developed and has implemented across the country. Called the Health-Smart Behavior Program, it promotes better nutrition and increased physical activity.

“The institute will empower individuals to improve their health, their communities, and, in turn, the state of Florida,” said Michael Good, M.D., dean of the UF College of Medicine.

Initially, the institute will train at least 360 health workers in Alachua, Gadsden and Volusia counties over eight months. People like Betty James, 63, whose cholesterol levels and overall health have improved since she became a “health empowerment coach” at Open Door Ministries.

“Sometimes if you know the person who’s giving you information, you’re more relaxed and more receptive to what they’re telling you,” she said.