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'We Needed to Get Public Health, Evidence-Based Programs Inside the Black Church'

Verna Laboy, left, wears a dark blue t-shirt and smiles into the camera. Annabelle Simmons, right, wears a bright yellow shirt and smiles into the camera.
Zia Kelly

Verna Laboy and Annabelle Simmons both work with Live Well By Faith, a community health program that targets chronic disease among African Americans in Boone County.

Verna has run the program since it was established by the Columbia/Boone County health department in 2016. The program supports health ministries at 17 black churches in the area by providing health programming, training and resources for people in the congregation, and leaders within each church help run programming and do data collection.

Annabelle Simmons is a health lifestyle coach at St. Luke United Methodist Church, and she speaks with Verna about how they address racial health disparities through the church community.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org

Verna Laboy: I don't like events, because you have a health fair, and you just check that off your list. You put everything away and there is no behavior modification, there no lifestyle changes, there's no transformations, nothing. 

We needed to get public health, evidence-based programs inside the black church -- led by their own leadership. What we do is I go after the pastors, and the pastors usually say "Aaay, I ain't got time to talk to you, girl. Talk to Miss Annabelle. She's the healthy person in the congregation, Talk to her." 

So, I go after people like Miss Annabelle who are leaders in their churches already, and can draw a crowd and can pull their congregation together around this issue of health. 

Which here in Boone County, for African Americans, it's dire.

Annabelle Simmons: When Verna came and talked to us, and he [my pastor] said "and she's the one who's going to be leading this," I was like "Oh, really?"

So, I said "OK. I will be the health lifestyle coach." We had to go to the training and learn how to use the blood pressure machine. We had to learn what you're looking for on the BMI charts. They taught me, and then I had to teach my congregation about these programs. 

Everyone had to fill out a form and get their BMI done and their blood pressure taken, and they got used to it. At first they were like, "Do you have to take my blood pressure?" "No, it's up to you. Would you like me to take your blood pressure?" Now, they're used to me being available to take their blood pressure before and after church.

Verna: Data collection, monitoring blood pressure, is very important. Knowing your A1C [a common blood test used to diagnose diabetes] is important, because you can do something about it when it's pre-diabetes stages. 

African Americans in Boone County are dying from complications of diabetes at a rate of 3 to 1 with their white counterparts, and 2 to 1 with hypertension. It's critical. And getting this population to understand they have power - they have power to make a difference in their own lives. 

Case in point, I was 250 pounds when I started this job -- I was one of the people in the targeted population -- I needed help. I was on the fast-track to Type II Diabetes. 

I changed it. I changed those numbers. I'm down 50 pounds. Diabetes might have been in my past, with grandparents. I've lost family members from diabetes, but I refuse to leave that legacy for my grandchildren.

Zia Kelly graduated with degrees in journalism and public health at the University of Missouri - Columbia in May 2020.. Outside of the newsroom, she works part-time as a personal trainer and competes as an Olympic-style weightlifter.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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