BUCKHANNON — Not long after Steve Willis became the interim pastor for the First Baptist Church in Kenova, he noticed something alarming about his duties — he estimates that one-third of his time was spent visiting congregants in the hospital.
“The more time I spent with them, the more I realized that most of these issues were diet-related diseases,” Willis said. “I had one friend in particular who was incredibly involved in our church, he worked with the youth organization, he was always smiling and greeting people. He asked me if I would come pray with him before his bypass surgery.
“I went, and he was in the prep room before surgery, and his doctor came in and said, ‘This is the second time we’ve had to do this. I really need you to change the way you’re eating and exercising. If you don’t, someday this is going to catch up with you.’ ”
After the doctor left the room, Willis said he and his friend laughed, and Willis joked that he would buy his friend a pizza after his surgery was over. Willis’ friend came through surgery, but something went wrong post-operation.
“I literally watched my friend bleed out on the table,” he said. “I started screaming for nurses, and I stepped out of the room and watched as the monitor flat-lined. What we thought was a normal, everyday surgery took my friend’s life.”
Willis, author of “Winning the Food Fight: Victory in the Physical and Spiritual Battle for Good Food and a Healthy Lifestyle,” was one of more than 90 presenters who have volunteered their time and expertise for the Try This! Conference currently underway on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon.
For Willis, the issue was a spiritual one, and one that he wanted to share with his entire congregation.
“This is a moral issue,” he said.
Willis approached the elders at his church and began preaching about the problem at his services. When CNN came to Huntington to document the city the federal Centers for Disease Control Prevention had declared the fattest in America, they visited Willis’ church, where his congregation had collectively lost 2,000 pounds in three months.
Willis knew more had to be done, however. Exercise he understood, but Willis knew it was only one part of the equation, so he prayed.
“I prayed on Sunday night. ‘Lord, please send us someone who knows something about cooking, so that we can build a health kitchen in our church,’” he said. “Monday morning, Jamie Oliver announced he was coming to Huntington to do his show.”
Huntington was featured on the first episode of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” a series geared toward improving understanding about food and health. While Huntington is still the fattest city in the country, according to ABC News, West Virginia has a rival for fattest state. Mississippi tops the charts in obesity percentages.
The city of Hernando, Mississippi, is bucking that trend. Chip Johnson, mayor of Hernando, said it’s because workable, affordable solutions to the national health crisis are out there — you need only know where to look.
“You have to create a culture of health,” Johnson said.
Since Johnson became mayor in 2005, the city has established the largest farmers market in Mississippi, has established bike lanes, has refurbished an old school football field for community recreational use — all without increasing taxes for its citizens. Blue Cross, Blue Shield even named Hernando “the healthiest hometown in Mississippi.” According to Johnson, it came as an understanding between citizens and government; if a group of people wanted something for the community, they would need to find a way to get it.
“You have to create an atmosphere for good health and an opportunity for good health,” he said. “Those two things are crucial. It’s an economic development issue.”
Those issues are what have galvanized the more than 350 participants in the Try This! Conference. The result of more than a year of planning, the conference has a slew of sponsors, including the Benedum Foundation, the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition, Change the Future West Virginia, Unicare, the West Virginia Farmers’ Market Association and more than a dozen others. The first day of the conference took place Friday and continues Saturday with more than 30 breakout sessions on everything from creating a system for local food distribution to developing active summer programs.
“There is so much latent energy in the state for interesting projects and good work that could lead to interesting things both on a positive health outcomes level and a positive community level,” said Garnet Bruell, a VISTA volunteer based in Fayetteville. “The conference is casting a wide net. . . . I think there’s something for everyone, but the driving force of it is that you can do something.”
Try This! also has an extensive website, www.trythiswv.com, where users can find more than 80 how-tos on healthy cooking, starting exercise programs and generating funding for community projects. For Bruell, who studied dietetics and has lost 140 pounds, the issue is one that is far from hopeless.
“The focus is not the problems, although the problems are why people are here,” he said. “The focus is on the ability to have successes and make a difference.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.