By Ivey Schofield
Javonna Long’s life changed with just one step.
Three years ago, Long joined a group of women for a walk around Whiteville in Columbus County. Now, she’s 30 pounds lighter and hopes others will join her in healthier living.
Long is among more than 1 million people across the United States who have participated in GirlTrek, a global health movement for Black women. The coalition, based in Washington, D.C., aims to transform Black lives by mobilizing community members in a cost-free and fear-free way.
In October, GirlTrek is trying to expand its outreach through the Jumpstart Challenge. Participants are encouraged to take a 30-minute walk every day this month.
“We walk to save women’s lives,” said Frankye Boone-Newkirk, a state coach and Columbus County organizer for GirlTrek.
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Boone-Newkirk started a GirlTrek team in Columbus County in the summer of 2019 after reading an article about the organization on Facebook. She called on others to join her, and dozens of Black women across the region gathered in Whiteville to walk together as a team called the Sole Fine Trekkers.
In the United States, the life expectancy of Black women is nearly 78, compared to 81 for white women and 84 for Hispanic women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About four out of five Black women are obese, according to the Office of Minority Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Columbus County, the average life expectancy of all residents is 74 – four years below the average in North Carolina. About 46% of people are obese.
Long said she had been thinking about ways to lose weight, and she didn’t want to exercise alone. So she drove 30 minutes from her home in Tabor City to walk with Boone-Newkirk.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to join a group of women wanting the same thing,” Long said. “I’m so glad I did because I haven’t looked back.”
Three in five Black women who participate in GirlTrek report losing about 15 pounds, according to the program. They also report having fewer prescribed medications, symptoms of depression and hesitations toward trying new fitness activities.
Soon after the Whiteville team formed, several women, including Long, formed branches in Elizabethtown, Lake Waccamaw, Wilmington and Tabor City. At its height, Long’s team in Tabor City consisted of 20 to 30 women who walked together every week.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing many trekkers to walk virtually, with family, alone or not at all.
“We missed our community,” Boone-Newkirk said.
Now, about 10 women consistently walk together in Whiteville and in Tabor City, and both teams want more people to join through this month’s challenge. Women of all races and ethnicities are welcome, Boone-Newkirk said.
The Columbus County Health Department, Columbus Regional Healthcare System and Southeastern Community College have partnered with GirlTrek for the challenge.
“It’s really simple,” Boone-Newkirk said. “It’s just walking, one foot in front of the other.”
GirlTrek has curated a list of suggested walks, including ones to pray, to celebrate, to deal with a tough day, to travel a mile and to support a cause. Walk instead of watching television, the group suggests, or take a walk as a date.
Those are just some ideas to get people out the door, Boone-Newkirk said. Participants can have various motivations for joining.
The Jumpstart Challenge also allows trekkers to walk alone or in smaller groups. For some people, Boone-Newkirk said, it can be intimidating to join a group of 30 women walking together quickly through town.
Long said she often hears excuses from women interested in joining her walks. She hopes she can encourage others to participate in the challenge.
“Just start,” Long said. “Whether you walk with us or alone at your own pace, you’ll feel so much better when you do.”
Long said she wants others to understand the psychological and physical benefits of walking that she has experienced after three years with GirlTrek. She now makes it a priority.
Last week, Long laced up her tennis shoes. She was going to get in one more walk before her son arrived home from a field trip – to take care of herself and to get one step closer to completing the October challenge.
To register, visit girltrek.org.