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Symposium brings health knowledge to community

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Wesley Bland, an East Carolina University student who is studying to become a Physicans Assistant, checks the blood pressure of Chester Hicks during a health symposium, Friday morning.


By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, February 23, 2019

African Americans often hear they are at greater risk of dying from heart disease and stroke because they are at greater risk for developing high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

African Americans also often hear they can cut their risk through healthy eating and exercise.

What few people say, and even fewer demonstrate, is how they can change their diet and exercise when they live on a limited budget, in an area with few options for buying food and few options for safe exercising.

East Carolina University’s College of Allied Health Sciences, Department of Public Health and Medical & Health Sciences Foundation joined students from their programs and representatives from about a dozen community organizations to answer those questions at the 15th annual Jean Mills Health Symposium held Friday at Cornerstone Baptist Church’s Family Life Center.

“Our goal is to educate the community about these risks and to empower people to make changes,” said Ronny Bell, Department of public health chairman.

Explaining nutrition and exercise is of little use when you don’t empower people to do the work, he said.

The theme of this year’s event was “Community Health: A Family Affair.” It was a departure from earlier events which have been held on campus and focused on academic presentations.

“It had always been in the back of our mind to bring this symposium to the community,” said Robert Orlikoff, dean of the College of Allied Health Sciences at East Carolina University.

Facility and students understand the health care needs facing the African-American community in eastern North Carolina, Orlikoff said. The symposium was a chance to put the knowledge into action.

One local pastor already is working toward that goal.

The Rev. Richard Joyner, founder of The Conetoe Family Life Center, shared the history of his organization’s effort to make healthy food available to his community.

Joyner said institutions such as the College of Allied Sciences need to work harder to take the knowledge it has gathered and bring it into communities to improve people’s lives.

Joyner was spurred to action when one year he conducted 30 funerals for young adults who died from health-related issues.

The sources he sought offered lots of ideas, but little in the way of helping people make healthy choices, he said.

“We got tired of people looking at our numbers and saying. ‘We want to come and do research on you,’” Joyner said. “I said, ‘Hell, I’m researched out the wazoo.’”

Dr. Paul Cunningham, former dean of the Brody School of Medicine, told Joyner that the community had a nutrition problem because it lacked access to afford, healthy food.

Joyner brought it Roman Pawlak, a faculty member with the Department of Nutrition Sciences, to take over the pulpit once a month for a year to talk about the Biblical attitudes towards food and why healthy living should be part of living a life of faith.

The center also launched a summer gardening camp that gave children ages 5-16 the opportunity to grow their own food.

Today the center donates half its harvest to low-income families and provides free, fresh food for community events and celebrations. The center also operates a community-supported agriculture program where people by a subscription to receive fresh vegetables weekly, Joyner said. 

His efforts and other presentations provided inspiration to those attending the health symposium.

The symposium is named for Jean Elaine Mills, a graduate of ECU’s public administration program. Her concentration was in community health. After she died from breast cancer in 2000, her brother, attorney Amos T. Mills III, wanted to keep her spirit of community outreach alive. He donated $25,000 to establish the Jean Elaine Mills Health Symposium, which focused on health care issues facing minority populations.

A number of the symposium’s participants were members of Jean Mills’ sorority, Greenville Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta.

Sorority member Mildred Daniels said the activities were eye-opening, she said, especially learning how much sugar is in everyday foods.

“It really stood out to me. I want to cut back,” Daniels said.

“I am 65 and I’m at the age that I am starting feel things,” said Belinda Johnson of Greenville. “I want to get off some of the medicines I am taking, especially my blood pressure and cholesterol medication.”

Johnson said the event was a good reminder to refocus on healthier eating habits.

“That Cheddar Bo biscuit, I think I’ll switch and get a bowl of grits or oatmeal. That will be more helpful,” Johnson said.

Contract Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.