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North Lawndale anti-diabetes effort
follows in Humboldt Park’s footsteps

When Denise Camp was first diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes seven years ago, she had a common psychological reaction.

“It was very difficult for me to accept the fact that I had it,” she says. “I was in denial. I told myself, ‘Sure. Right.’ ” But she eventually accepted the fact that she would need to monitor her blood sugar and take pills to regulate her insulin level.

Then, two years ago, her now-22-year-old son started losing weight and feeling weak, and then he fainted one morning before class at Truman College. His subsequent diabetes diagnosis has spurred him to change his eating habits and exercise more, and he no longer needs to take insulin, Camp says.

“As a family, we struggled,” she says. “We weren’t eating the right types of foods, at all. That’s one of the basic things, is eating healthy. But it’s hard to do if you have only one income, and you’re trying to make your food stretch.”

Photo: Courtesy Sinai Urban Health Institute

Block captains Denise Camp (left) and Margaret Shepard (right) meet with a participant in North Lawndale's Block by Block program.

Her first-hand experiences prepared Camp well to be a block captain in the recently launched North Lawndale Block by Block Diabetes Community Action Program -- for which Sinai Urban Health Institute, part of Mt. Sinai Hospital Medical Center, received a two-year, $1 million grant from the National Institutes for Health.

Like a similar although somewhat larger program in Humboldt Park, the Block by Block effort is sending Camp and her colleague, Margaret Shepard, door to door in three U.S. Census tracts – ranging from roughly Roosevelt to Ogden north to south, and from Homan to Tripp east to west. They’re trying to find every diabetic or person at risk for diabetes and make sure they’re tested and in treatment if necessary.

“It’s a serious disease. It’s nothing to play around with. People are dying every day, losing their eyesight, losing their limbs because they didn’t take care of themselves,” says Camp, whose husband, mother and two sister all have diabetes. "The corner store is selling chips and pop and [other] junk. Get some fruits and vegetables."

Shepard, a diabetic of 26 years who retired from the banking industry and hadn’t planned to work again, says she avoids certain foods and can’t always be as active as she would like. “I have grandchildren,” she says. “There are times we can go out on Saturdays and have a ball. And then on Sundays, the body shuts down and says, ‘You’re done.’ [Diabetes] will change the quality of your life.”

Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI) focused on North Lawndale because the community is its home turf and because the same 2003 SUHI survey that showed Humboldt Park had stratospheric diabetes rates placed North Lawndale not far behind, says Steven Whitman, director and founder of the health institute.

“That called our attention to the community,” he says. “North Lawndale residents are a big part of our clientele. We’re always trying to help the community we’re located in get healthier.”

Forging Personal Connections
When the two block captains, who are formally known as community health educators,  first started hitting the streets in late April, they passed out flyers to raise awareness at currency exchanges, churches, senior citizen buildings and other public places, Camp says.

Then, they started going door-to-door asking how many people are in each household, their health circumstances generally, and whether anyone has been diagnosed with diabetes – and then they test to see who’s at risk, says Donna Werner, now-former program coordinator, who recently left her position. They’re hoping to interview 2,500 people and will stop once they reach 300 people enrolled in the program, she says.

Those who sign up receive regular visits, during which they discuss eating and exercising habits and are re-tested for blood sugar, blood pressure and weight. The program offers cooking classes through a partnership with Family Focus Lawndale, a walking and fitness class at Douglas Park Track, and classes in dance, aerobics and yoga through a partnership with Muevete, which does the same in Humboldt Park.

“After the test is over, we’re talking to them about an action plan,” Camp says. “If their sugar level is high, we talk to them about how to bring their sugar level down. … We try to encourage them to do more physical activity, to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Along with the action plan comes a healthy dose of encouragement, Camp says. “This project is very dear to me,” she says. “You get to know the community. You get a chance to talk to people on a one-on-one basis and let them know than even though you have diabetes, it’s not the end of the world. You need to do what your doctor tells you. Get your neighbors and friends to walk with you and encourage you.”

Shepard has learned to keep in mind people’s circumstances when making suggestions. “I’m trying to tell you how to eat right, fruits and vegetables – and I see you’re trying to keep the lights on, keep the gas on. Food tends to be ‘Oodles of Noodles’ in many cases. … I can’t say, ‘You shouldn’t have had those.’ You ate what was there. I have to re-think my position and say, ‘When you do get money into your hands and go to the store, buy things that are better for you.’ ”

She makes an effort to get to know her clientele beyond their health circumstances, Shepard says. “I try to remember personal things about them because that shows you do care,” she says. “When I re-visit, people are glad to see me. They remember me. It has been a humbling experience.”

Creating Partnerships
By mid-October, the block captains had interviewed 1,020 people, 225 of whom had enrolled in the program. “We’re excited here at Mt. Sinai because I don’t know anybody who’s ever done a project like this, anywhere," Whitman says. "We’re not only going door-to-door, we’re adding to that an intimate connection with Mt. Sinai’s constantly developing diabetes program. It’s not like we just find these people and then leave them alone. We’re finding them and then giving them a crisp, clear way to get the medical care they need.”

Mt. Sinai is the hub for the effort, but nine other agencies attended an all-day retreat in March to kick off the project, Werner says, and continued their group conversation about community wellness at a meeting on Oct. 6. “We know it’s not just Sinai that needs to do this work,” she says.

In addition, SUHI ensures that the twin efforts in Humboldt Park and North Lawndale constantly communicate, Whitman says. “We’re always, always, always talking to each other,” he says.

Although Sinai can handle some of the patient load, referrals for others can be tough to place – and Whitman dreams of eventually opening a stand-alone diabetes center in North Lawndale similar to the Greater Humboldt Park Diabetes Empowerment Center, which opened its doors in May.

“There is nothing to the west of Sinai, all the way out to Oak Park,” he says. “We ask about appointments, and [other facilities] say, ‘It’ll be three months.’ We say, ‘You can’t do that. The people we’re finding are estranged and alienated from the medical system, and now we have their attention.’ But that’s all they’ll do.”

For her part, Camp plans to keep spreading the good word. “This is close to my heart,” she says, recalling a discussion she had with a store cashier about the Block by Block program, with her son standing nearby. “My son says, ‘Mom, you’re not at work,’ ” Camp recalled with a laugh. “I says, ‘I’m always at work.’ ”

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