Biggest Winner Program-celebration 1/28/2010

Maria Morales lost 127 pounds with the help of the local Biggest Winner Program, but she's not the only person to find success. In fact, in the Biggest Winner program, everyone's a winner.

This year-long health program has helped hundreds of people drop pounds, control their diabetes, quit smoking, and lower their blood pressure, but most importantly, it has helped them take control of their health--and that makes them all winners.

Now, the local grassroots initiative is drawing to a close, and to celebrate these victories, the whole community will be invited to a closing ceremony, to be held January 28 from 4-7pm. The location has not yet been announced.

The ceremony will include singing, dancing, and some inspirational stories from Biggest Winner participants. The evening will culminate with a grand prize drawing for $5,000.

Started in April, the Biggest Winner program is a collaboration between Downtown Campus of the University at Albany's Center for Excellence in Aging program and the Healthy Hearts on the Hill program. (both programs particpate on the Central Avenue Farmers Market) The program has about 260 participants, who were recruited at block parties, health fairs, farmers' markets, and other community events across the city, says Kimberly Connell, program coordinator through the Center for Excellence in Aging. "People were very eager to be a part of it," Connell says.

These participants agree to work toward a healthier lifestyle, and they earn points for participating in healthy activities like exercising, visiting the doctor regularly, and eating healthy food, she says. These points are recorded on a scorecard, which they carry with them and then turn in at the end of the month.

The Biggest Winner is a winner because of its relatively narrow focus, Connell says. The program also works because it engaged people in their own communities, and provided help that was in line with individual goals, she says. The program also gave participants plenty of incentives to stick with their new healthier lifestyle, including monthly prize drawings for people who earned at least 30 points. At the end of the year, these individuals qualify for the grand prize drawing of $5,000.
The program focuses on taking small manageable steps, but participants report that the impact is anything but small. Ron Scott, Townsend Park Homes Tenant Association President helped bring the program to the affordable housing complex on Central Avenue. Scott is active with "Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables," Healthy Hearts on the Hill, Active Choices, and serves as a task force member for the Neighborhood Health Task Force and the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities. He liked the Biggest Winner program because it "ties all these programs together," he says, and because it helps residents feel like they're in charge of their aging and health.
Since bringing the program to the complex, Scott says more residents are taking advantage of the nearby Albany YMCA. He also reports that the seniors have become more mobile, and are taking advantage of some of the activities in the area. Residents will tell him they walked to the CVS and back, the next time he sees them, they say they've gone to the park, he says. "They're more active and sometimes that means their minds are more active," he says.

One winner's story

Looking at Maria Morales, it's hard to believe that just over a year ago, she weighed 300 pounds. Today, this woman is a svelte 173 pounds, and full of life, but a year ago, she says, she spent a lot of time at home, in bed. "I would get up to go to the bathroom, or the kitchen, and then go back to bed," Morales says, sitting on the couch in her parents living room. "I didn't do anything."

Morales attributes her weight to depression; not long before the weight gain, she had broken off her marriage. She also successfully battled two bouts with Hodgkins-Lymphoma, but the cancer had left her with a rod, plate, and screws in her leg. She was taking regular medication to combat the pain, but it left her feeling slow and lethargic.

Finally, her primary care physician, Dr. Robert Paeglow, gave her a hard dose of reality. "'Maria,' he said, 'you're going to die of a heart attack if you don't lose some weight,'" she recalls. After that, she says, she made a conscious decision to start a diet and start exercising. Morales wasn't a big eater, but she liked her sweets, she says--cookies, cake, candy, ice cream--and giving them up was not easy. She also joined a gym, and began to swim regularly at her brother's pool and go on long walks. She was on a fixed income, so she needed to find affordable ways to get in shape. Initially, she was exercising 4-5 times a day, a vigorous schedule for anyone, but for someone so overweight, it was particularly challenging. Sometimes, it was hard to find the motivation, but Morales just kept telling herself she could do it and that her life was worth it. In no time at all, she had gotten down to 279 pounds, but she felt like she needed some support to keep going.

Dr. Paeglow, who was one of the co-founders of the Biggest Winner program, encouraged her to join the new initiative as a way to stay on track. Morales joined and found great support in the new program, she says. She liked it because it covered the full spectrum of health, both physical and mental. She got involved in new activities like zumba, and began attending regular meetings Overeaters' Anonymous meetings. As a result, she became more social, more self-confident, she said. "Now I feel like that Mary J. Blige song, 'You Ain't Got Nothing on Me,'" she says with a laugh.
Before the Biggest Winner program, Morales had trouble walking up a flight of stairs, today the 39-year-old woman feels like she can do anything. "That program saved my life," she says. She glows with new life, and looks forward eagerly to what awaits. Morales has a new boyfriend, and is contemplating another wedding. She is also looking forward to returning to school and finishing her clinicals so that she can become a nurse, she says. The Biggest Winner program taught her the secrets of healthy living, and she plans to continue working out and eating right: "Now I know forever how to do it," she says.

Morales is looking forward to the Closing Ceremony and her shot at the $5,000 grand prize, but, she says, she already got the best prize she could hope for: she got control of her life. "The Biggest reward for me is that I'm going to live," she said. "I'm not going to die."

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