Educating health

Educating Better Health — Published in South Mississippi Living

Healthy Living: Food Matters

Educating Better Health

Story by Priscilla Loebenberg

Bringing health education to people who need it is not just a job for Gulf Coast Health Educators (GCHE) Executive Director Deborah Colby — it is her calling.

In 25 years as a registered dietician, Colby saw countless people fighting the crippling diseases that plague Mississippians without any sustained guidance. The state tops the charts in heart disease deaths and obesity rates and is second in diabetes prevalence. However, she said about half the people referred for diabetes classes or nutritional medical therapy could not afford the services because insurance didn’t cover them.

“We have a population that needs these services,” said Colby. “But through the traditional system, they are not available.”

Colby said she and co-founder Sandra Kelly decided to do something after completing a study of the book The Purpose Driven Life.

“We actually felt God was calling us to do this,” said Colby. “We took a leap of faith.”

The pair took classes on how to start a business and write a grant proposal and began offering classes in 2006 at three locations. The nonprofit has since expanded classes to ten locations across Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. Last year, 700 people attended classes taught by registered dietitians and registered nurses.

GCHE offers diabetes education classes; healthy heart classes for blood pressure and cholesterol lowering; healthy lifestyles classes for weight management; and has begun working on a childhood obesity initiative. GCHE also helps bring health fairs and seminars to businesses and community groups.

Colby said her reward is in the results she sees at the three-month follow-up visits. She regularly sees significant drops in A1C (glucose control indicator) and cholesterol levels. About 80 percent of the people in healthy lifestyles classes lose weight.

“Education is so vital. What you eat and your physical activity directly affect those numbers,” said Colby. “Often people are taking medication, but the numbers aren’t budging and they don’t know why. Lifestyle change is supposed to work with medicine. Medication is not a substitute.”

The organization is funded primarily through grants but relies on its annual fundraiser, Dancing Under the Stars, for general operating costs. The event will take place June 1 at IP Casino Resort Spa.