Walt Roberson is, as he puts it, “an ol’ drill sergeant” and a Vietnam vet who spent more than 30 years working his beat as an Asheville police officer. He’s 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 suicide was much too close in his mind.
But a friend’s advice and the YWCA of Asheville may have saved his life, and he joins in the call for funds to save the nonprofit’s Diabetes Wellness program, which may lose nearly half its funding if proposed state budget cuts go through.
After 10 months in the wellness program, which provides workout coaching, support groups and more, Robertson has lost about 42 pounds and says that now, when he looks in the mirror, he can say, “Welcome back.” For a while there, he explains, he didn’t recognize himself. A year ago, he was on three types of blood pressure medicine, and now takes just two. He’s learned other ways to do things when it comes to diet too — like asking for a child’s portion at a restaurant while offering to pay the adult price.
He laughs, acknowledging that he grew up on a traditional (and high-fat) Southern diet. “I can put away some groceries,” says Robertson. But the YWCA’s program and the encouragement to keep exercising have taught him a lot and likely saved his life.
But if proposed budget cuts to the state’s Health and Wellness Fund go through, the YWCA program will lose almost half its support. At a June 2 press conference, YWCA-Asheville Director Holly Jones announced that she anticipates losing $100,000 in grant monies from North Carolina’s Health and Wellness Fund. To make up the projected loss, Jones and Program Director Alfie 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 learn healthier habits in their home kitchens.
“If this program is cut, a lot of people will suffer,” says Robertson.
About 120 local residents currently participate, most of them minorities and most of them poor, YWCA Development Director Tami Ruckman adds. Type 2 diabetes is a national problem and a local one, disproportionately affecting African Americans and Latinos. More than 90 percent of the local Diabetes Wellness program, which partners with such local organizations as Mission Health System, are low-income, and about 65 percent are minorities, Ruckman mentions.
Part of the solution to keeping them in the program, despite the state cut? A private donor has offered to donate $100 for every new member to Club W — the nonprofit’s fitness center. Club W memberships fund most of the programs the YWCA offers, Jones explains, remarking, “We’re not going to let this program go down without a fight,” says Jones. “We’ve figured out ways [to cut costs] but we still need $25,000 by June 30.”
Rodriguez and Jones both emphasize that the YWCA program works. One participant was on dialysis and on the list for a kidney transplant when he started. After five months of exercising and losing weight and, he’s healthy enough to be off dialysis and off the transplant list.
“How many of us have started an exercise program and not finished? We have a 78 percent success rate,” says Jones, who’s also a Buncombe County commissioner and works with the childhood-obesity project spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama. The YWCA’s Diabetes Wellness program has been profiled statewide as one of the most effective in addressing health disparities related to race and managing the disease.
Robertson has his own way of touting the program. He’d been a member of the YWCA for three years before he got serious, rarely coming more than one or two times a month, much less starting a program that would really improve his health.
But a friend convinced him that at the YWCA, it didn’t matter how big he’d gotten, what he looked like (“I couldn’t even wear tie-up tennis shoes,” Robertson recalls) or whether he got around on a cane or a walker. The day he arrived to get started, an elderly woman on a cane walked in, and inside, there were folks just like him, trying to turn their health around. And there was always someone available to help.
His friend said, “See? They don’t care. It’s the Y-Dub-Ya!”
For more information about the program, or to make a donation, visit ywcaofasheville.org or call 252-7206.