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Heart challenge has Dot church health-conscious

Jared Lindh

The Rev. William E. Dickerson, pastor of the Dorchester church, said he saw some welcome changes in his parishioners during the challenge.

“I noticed they were much more talkative amongst each other, about their health and trying to keep their stress levels down,” he said.

At the conclusion of the program, cash prizes of $500, $250 and $100 were awarded to the competitors with the three highest point totals. Third-place finisher Dottin said she spent her prize money on fresh fruits and vegetables. The first- and second-place finishers were unavailable for comment.

Organizers said they felt imposing specific bottom line goals, such as benchmarks concerning weight loss or blood pressure levels, would set the competition’s 50 participants up to fail. Instead, competitors were simply asked to be more active and aware in their daily health choices.

“I thought it was going to be another nutrition program where everyone gets weighed and they give you a strict diet to follow, but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Dottin. “It was much more educational.”

That approach helps ensure that the competition’s benefits extend beyond just its participants, according to Meghan Patterson, director of the Disparities Project at the Boston Public Health Commission.

“[The challenge] was more than just about the individual,” said Patterson, also a member of the Angry Heart Collaborative’s board of advisors. “They can pass this on to their friends, their families, their other social networks.”

The emphasis on instruction, combined with the competition’s six-week timeframe, helped Dottin make paying more attention to her diet into a regular habit.

“It forced you to think about things like, ‘How many servings of fruit did I eat today? How many servings of vegetables did I eat today? Did I read the nutrition label on that?’” said Dottin.

While planning for the challenge, co-chairs Fedigan and Parnagian were told by the collaborative’s board of advisors to expect that only 10 or 15 of the original 50 participants to successfully complete the six-week program. They were thrilled when 22 congregants finished, a number that didn’t surprise Dickerson at all.

“Yes, I expected great results like that,” he said. “Our parish knows how to rise to the occasion. They certainly did that this time.”

Dottin said Greater Love’s welcoming community helped competitors.

“I think it is an environment where people feel safe and comfortable,” said Dottin. “There were some of us in the challenge that might not necessarily have gone somewhere else to get that same information.”

As the collaborative evaluates the results of the inaugural challenge and looks to secure funding for a second program, Parnagian has her eye on expanding the competition’s reach.

“We’d like to try them in schools and some other community-based organizations,” said Parnagian. “Where do we have access to people? If you only go through churches, that leaves some people out.”

Like Parnagian, Dickerson sees the Greater Love pilot as just the beginning.

“I believe that the black community recognizes the importance of the health issues that face us today,” said Dickerson. “We need to do all we can to disseminate information. It starts with the family. If we can win our families, then we can win our communities. If we can win our communities, we can win our city, then state, then nation, but it all starts with the family.”

Wayne Dozier, a 55-year-old lead carpenter and one of the 22 Greater Love participants who finished the competition, said he believes the program can succeed elsewhere so long as the emphasis stays on raising awareness.

“I think [if] we all stick together and help pass on this information, we can develop into a healthier community,” said Dozier. “We’re not here forever. Why postpone our happiness with bad habits?”