Oprah Winfrey Network to feature Mud River Pound Punchers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last March, eight Mud River Volunteer Fire Department Pound Punchers had lost 416 pounds in seven months. They did it by pounding country roads, exercising in the fire hall and laughing a lot, five days a week, with little money and no gym, track or grocery store within easy reach.
"I guess our secret is the word 'fun,'" Melisa Ferrell said. "We enjoy each other and encourage each other. When one of us gets discouraged, the others pick that person up."
By June, they had lost 555 pounds. They released 555 helium balloons to celebrate.
As the balloons floated over the mountain, a New York camera crew filmed their group hug. The camera crew had been following them around for two days, sent by the show "Our America," on the Oprah Winfrey Network. After reading about the women in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, "Our America" contacted them for an episode about parents who want to help their kids lose weight.
The crew arrived in two rental cars jam-packed with camera and sound equipment to film the parents and kids. They filmed them walking in sunshine and pouring rain, eating and playing basketball. Dancing to eBay tapes, blowing up the balloons.
They filmed the green firehouse chalkboard with everybody's weight loss on it: Annie 101 pounds, Melisa 123 pounds, Karen 63 pounds. And so on.
The result: On Tuesday night, "Our America, with Lisa Ling" will feature the Pound Punchers in an episode about parents' role in child obesity. "They are in this show because we're in the midst of a devastating epidemic of obesity, and they are showing us something inspiring, something that's working," Ling said Friday.
"They have a lot to teach the whole country," she said. "To tell the truth, we kind of fell in love with them," she said. "Our whole crew did. We're in awe of them. They are such earnest people with such sincere motivations, and they're so incredibly collaborative in their efforts to lose weight. They work together so well.
"Fundamentally, this episode is about the need for parents to step in and be role models for their kids, and the Mud River parents are great role models for their kids," Ling said.
The Pound Punchers have shed more than 750 pounds now. They're aiming for 1,000 by June.
But their role-modeling is about more than losing weight, Toney said. "It's about the community, too." In December, for instance, she and fellow firefighters drove from hollow to hollow every day for a week, delivering food and water to home after home, after Superstorm Sandy knocked out the power for a week.
"When our community needs us, we're there," said Pound Puncher and firefighter Karen Lawson. They're teaching the kids to have the same attitude. When the fire truck stopped at each house, her 15-year-old daughter Ashley, Melisa's 19-year-old son, R.J., and other teenagers jumped off the back of the truck to deliver food and water.
Each day now, Ashley Lawson gets off the school bus at the fire hall and works out with the Pound Punchers after school. She's lost about 30 pounds, so far. "Two years ago, I wouldn't take off my hoodie, even when it was hot, because I didn't want people looking at me," she said, "but we laugh a lot at the fire hall and, I don't know, it's making a difference."
Her friends are starting to come to work out, too. "The teenagers keep us laughing," Karen Lawson, Ashley's mother, said. "They'll say anything." The younger kids are quick to join their parents for a walk after school. The adults have taught them dance routines they can do together. "We're like a big family," said James Toney, Annie Toney's 11-year-old son.
"The Mud River adults are not only saving their own lives, they're saving their kids' lives too," Ling said. "They see that their own weight problem affects their children, and they've found they can change that."
Melisa's 19-year-old son often walks with his mom now.
"I used to be embarrassed of her, but now she's my hero," he said. During the workouts, he baby-sits anywhere from four to a dozen kids, keeping them active. He has cut his soda pop consumption from more than 20 cans a day to an occasional can. He's lost more than 50 pounds.
Tuesday night's "Our America" episode is divided into three segments. First, there is an Arkansas 4-year-old who weighs more than 100 pounds and already has sleep apnea. A doctor tells the mother that, if he doesn't lose weight, "he will have the diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol problems . . . . It's a ticking time bomb." Then a Mississippi couple tells Ling they know their 347-pound 12-year-old needs to eat more healthy food, but don't know what's healthy or how to cook it.
The Pound Puncher segment is placed last, to show that change is possible, that "if you can band together somehow with other people, you have support," Ling said. "It makes it easier. You can hold each other accountable and think of creative, fun ways to do this."
The Pound Punchers weren't allowed to see the show until it airs. "We're nervous as cats, because we just aren't sure how they're going to show us," said volunteer firefighter Annie Toney. "My stomach flops every time I think about it."
"When they asked us about doing it, we thought, well, if we do this, maybe it would inspire other people to get up off the couch and have fun together like we do," said Pound Puncher founder Melisa Ferrell. "But right now, we're kind of holding our breath."
She and the other Pound Punchers have heard people complain about the MTV show, "Buckwild," which many say casts the state in a bad light. "Oh Lord, I hope they don't make us look like that," Toney said. "We're so proud of what we do, and we're proud of our fire department, the way it helps our community."
They've thought of every minute that could be in there, like the time they sang "Country Girl, Shake that Thing" as they walked, "just cutting up, goofing with them, but maybe it ended up in the show?" Toney said.
"Oh, please tell them not to worry," "Our America" host Ling said when reached in Los Angeles on Friday. People who have seen the episode "have been so moved by them," she said. "Every one of us was inspired by our time with the Pound Punchers. I truly hope people from all across this country will be inspired, too."
This will be nothing like "Buckwild," she said.
The whole Mud River crew will gather at the fire hall Tuesday night to watch the show with their families and close friends. "I'll be happy if I don't have to duck my head," Annie Toney said.
"We'll all be happy if it turns out to be something that helps people," Melisa Ferrell said. "We also hope TV doesn't add 20 pounds to you, like they say it does."
Reach Kate Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1798.
"The Shape We're In" has been supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.