Keep Fit Healthy Living Program
- The Caribbean, Eastern Caribbean
- Personal Essay
Hi, my name is Amber Lewandowski and I served as a special education Peace Corps Volunteer in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Although special education was my sector, overall community development was my mission. Therefore, when a handful of women in my village approached me requesting an exercise class, I willingly accepted the opportunity to work together with them to bring their idea to life. Classes began in the village community center and I nervously agreed to instruct the first round of classes.
In the beginning we met twice a week, for one hour, in the evenings. We met later in the day when women had completed daily chores and it was a little cooler on the island. I choreographed a few routines of stretching, calisthenics, and light cardio to local soca music. We laughed, sweated, and enjoyed the workouts.
Shortly after the launch of the Keep Fit Program, named by the Barrouallie women, they requested that we meet an additional afternoon a week to go for a group walk around the village. This walk was an hour the first few weeks, but eventually spanned into two to three hour hikes exploring the island.
Keep Fit evolved into the Barrouallie Women's Healthy Living Program. It was a collective effort on behalf of the women in the program. We spread from the village community center to the beach, or in a large room in Barrouallie's Credit Union. Encouraging one another in exercise, our bond of friendship with one another strengthened. Naturally, as a group of women gathering together we laughed and gossiped; this led to the idea of discussion groups, before and after workouts, focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness, diabetes, body image, and self respect.
HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention was crucial on the island. Higher prevalence rates of the disease are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, making the Caribbean the second-most affected region in the world. In the Keep Fit, Healthy Living Program discussion groups we talked about what HIV/AIDS was, how it was and was not spread, and where to find more information about the infection and support groups on the island of St. Vincent.
Many of the village elders were diabetic. Some studies state that a markedly high prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes exist in the Caribbean population, affecting almost one in five people and increasing morbidity and mortality. Type 2 Diabetes is most often associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, previous history of gestational diabetes, physical inactivity, and certain ethnicities. This was concerning for the women participating in the Keep Fit Program. Prevention strategies were urgently needed to reduce the adverse implications of diabetes. In addition to exercising and encouraging others to do the same, the group began creating healthy recipes, using local ingredients and produce, for the women to share with their families.
Women participating in the Keep Fit Healthy Living Program gained confidence. In addition to identifying themselves as mothers, grandmothers, and daughters women began to see themselves as individuals—strong individuals contributing immensely to their society. The women of St. Vincent were the backbone to Vincentian households; cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for their children. Many of their daily chores took a great deal of time, having to be completed by hand without the conveniences of machines. Meals were prepared from scratch, the largest of which, lunch, was served daily. In addition to caring for the home, a number of women participating in the Keep Fit Program worked. Some were teachers, others merchants, and some even worked the fields as farmers. All of the women took pride in their roles and recognized the importance of what they did in their communities. They were standing a little taller, sharing their thoughts and ideas, and allowing themselves to take a little time to focus on their overall health and well-being.
The women wanted more challenge so we intensified our workouts. We made weights out of recycled plastic bottles and sand. We constructed mats for sit-ups and crunches, used rope for jump ropes, ordered pilate, yoga, and tae-bo videos from the states and borrowing the credit union's TV and DVD player, incorporated moves from the videos into our workouts. The Keep Fit women were generous, sharing the mats they sewed with the village preschools during the day for the children to nap on in the afternoons.
Our weekly walks and hikes led us to neighboring villages, attracting the attention of others on the island and promoting awareness of exercise and healthy living. One day we took public transport to the capital and marched as a group up the western coast of the island back to Barrouallie. All of which was organized and promoted by the local women in Keep Fit!
The Keep Fit Healthy Living Program has continued on-again, off-again in Barrouallie. Participants in the program took over as instructors near the end of my service and after I returned to the states. Groups of women continue to walk together, and of course the women discuss pressing issues. This unexpected project proved to be one of my most rewarding endeavors as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I cherish the women of Barrouallie and the fun we had in Keep Fit.