A year ago Chicagoan Beatrice Winfrey was shocked to learn that her then 24-year-old son was borderline diabetic and had high blood pressure.
Her son’s health issues were uncovered at free health screenings offered at her church last year through the nonprofit First Ladies Health Initiative.
She credits the group’s health day screening program at Commonwealth Community Church with helping put her and her family on a healthier path, and that’s what participants are hoping will be the result of this year’s event, which takes place Sunday at roughly 65 churches in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Through the program, pastors’ wives, also known as first ladies, open the doors of their churches to medical volunteers, who administer free on-site health tests. The tests target HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, Hepatitis C, and other illnesses that disproportionately affect African-Americans.
The screenings are open to the community at large — church membership is not required, and 20,000 health tests are expected to be conducted this year.
Commonwealth Community Church First Lady Cheryl Samuels brought the program to her church last year, and it was a godsend for Winfrey’s family.
Following the health fair, Winfrey and her son went to the doctor for further tests, and the family committed to making important lifestyle changes, including improving their diet and exercising. She, her son and daughter have lost a combined 60 pounds as a result.
“We had a family meeting, and we decided as a family to come together under one accord. . .to better ourselves, so we can live longer and enjoy life,” Winfrey said.
The program is targeting a need, according to Shauntai Stowers, first lady, at Mars Hill Baptist Church in the Austin neighborhood, which is participating in the program for the third year. Ambulances have been called to her church several times over the years as members have fallen ill due to high blood pressure and diabetes, said Stowers. She is co-chair of this year’s program with Jamell Meeks, first lady at Salem Baptist Church in Chicago.
“When they just take that small step and get their blood pressure checked and find out that something is going on. . .that then that leads them to the doctor,” Stowers said of the screenings. “It’s a great start.”
Last year at vision screenings that were offered at her church, an elderly member learned she had glaucoma, Stowers said, adding, “It’s definitely helped a lot of our young single mothers. . .that didn’t even know that they had high blood pressure.”
Since the initiative, sponsored by Walgreens, launched in Chicago in 2008, more than 25,000 participants have received more than 100,000 screenings. The program expanded to Los Angeles in 2011, and this year includes more than a dozen churches in Gary, according to program representatives.
For a list of participating churches and times, visit www.firstladieshealth.com.