The Beat: TheBeat: Taking the heat

Heat relief: With some parts of Western North Carolina breaking high-temperature records this past week, many Asheville residents sought relief in the shade and at Splashville. photos by Chris Wood

While near-record temperatures kept Asheville toasty for more than a week, a June 2 press conference at the Asheville YWCA revealed another hot topic: loss of funding for a local program.

The center’s Diabetes Wellness program may lose half its financial support this fiscal year, Director Holly Jones told reporters. About 120 local residents depend on the program.

Walt Robertson is one of them. With more than 30 years as an Asheville police officer, the former drill sergeant is used to being tough, and at more than 6 feet tall, he’s probably never been a small man. But now 60, the retired city resident says he came close to "doing something stupid" after he left the force: He gained weight till he was pushing 400 pounds, had knee surgery, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and got so depressed that he considered suicide.

But a friend's advice and the YWCA of Asheville’s Diabetes Wellness program may have saved his life, he said at the press conference.

After 10 months in the wellness program, which provides exercise coaching, support groups and more, Robertson has lost about 42 pounds and says that a year ago, he was on three types of blood pressure medicine; now he’s takes just two. He’s learned other ways to safeguard his health when it comes to diet too — like asking for a child’s portion at a restaurant while offering to pay the adult price. (That’s a big change for a man who “can put away some groceries,” Robertson jokes.)

The Wellness program and the encouragement of YW staff and fellow participants have helped him get back on track, he says.

But a budget move in the North Carolina General Assembly may abolish the state’s Health and Wellness Fund, the source of a grant that, last year, made it possible for program participation to double, Jones reported. This fiscal year, she anticipates losing $100,000 in those grant monies. To compensate, Jones and Program Director Alphie Rodriguez have cut a full-time staff position and trimmed another to half-time. They’ve also cut some features of the program, such as a cooking class that helps participants apply healthier habits in their home kitchens.

A nationwide problem, Type 2 diabetes disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos, and that holds true in Asheville, YWCA Development Director Tami Ruckman notes. More than 90 percent of the YW’s Diabetes Wellness program participants are low-income, and about 65 percent are minorities, she says.

“If this program is cut, a lot of people will suffer,” says Robertson.

To give the program a chance to survive, a private donor has offered to contribute $100 to the program for every new member who joins Club W — the nonprofit’s fitness center. Club W memberships finance most of the community programs the YWCA offers, Jones explains, emphasizing that the diabetes program has a 78 percent success rate. It’s recognized across the state as an effective way to address health disparities related to race and to manage the disease, she mentions.

Says Jones, “We’re not going to let this program go down without a fight. … We’ve figured out ways [to cut costs] but we still need $25,000 by June 30.”
For more information about the program, or to make a donation, visit ywcaofasheville.org or call 252-7206.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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