Of all the lessons I’ve learned in the last three years as the Communications and Health Promotion Leader for the Virginia Private Colleges Benefits Consortium, one of the most important is this – we have to stop “doing wellness” and start helping people to be well.
The Consortium (as we area affectionately known) provides health benefits to the faculty and staff at 16 private colleges in Virginia. The colleges span the state – as far east as Virginia Beach, north to Bridgewater, south to Danville and west to Grundy! As part of the medical benefit for the more than 3900 eligible employees and their spouses, we also provide a wellness program for the schools.
My path to the world of wellbeing has been anything but direct. I graduated college summa cum laude in 1987 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Prairie View A&M University of Texas. My career started in the aerospace industry at Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles. After a few twist and turns, I landed back home in Maryland working in senior management at Lockheed Martin Corporation. I was on the fast track to high levels in the corporation and was smack dab in the middle of a graduate program in Engineering Management. I received a NOVA award (Lockheed’s most prestigious award recognizing stellar achievement) for my work on the 2000 Decennial US Census program. I thought I had it all figured out. I was climbing the ladder. And then, as it will, life threw me a curve.
I received a call from my mother at work one day asking me to meet her at the hospital. My grandmother, then 80 years old, had been admitted. My grandmother, a retired educator, instilled in me a profound love of learning. She was my hero and my best friend. Her being in the hospital was not cool. I met my mother at the hospital and the two of us went to my grandmother’s room to wait for the doctor to come and let us know what was going on. After a short wait, the doctor walked in and without missing a beat said “Your mother (my grandmother) has ovarian cancer. It has spread throughout her abdominal cavity. The surgery would be terribly invasive and I doubt that she would survive. My recommendation is to take her home and keep her comfortable. She probably has about 3 weeks.” I think everything went deafly quiet at that point. I remember tears and crying. It was a totally surreal moment.
Suddenly, there I was – a single mom of a 3 year old, helping my mom care for my dying grandmother and my grandfather who suffered from dementia, working a full time job, and in school. Really?!
Feeling that we didn’t have much to lose, we enlisted the assistance of a local naturopath. She came to our home, met with the family, did some crazy muscle testing thing with my grandmother and then recommended some dietary changes and herbal supplements. No promises of course, but she thought it may help. Making a long story short, my grandmother lived for 12 weeks (not 3!) before making her transition, and the journey was MUCH different than what the doctor’s had prepared her for. Sitting with the naturopath, I learned a very important lesson – the body can heal itself! It was at that moment my life took another turn.
A few months after my grandmother passed in 2001, I enrolled in Trinity School of Natural Health in Warsaw, Indiana. Two years later, I completed my Doctoral degree in Naturopathy and went on to earn certifications as a Natural Health Practitioner and Nutritional Consultant. A self-confessed foodie, I continued down the nutrition path to earn a Certification as an Advanced Metabolic Typing Advisor.
In 2008, I moved to a small (very small… one-stop-light-in-the-entire-county kind of small) town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and opened a Holistic Wellness Center with my husband, while still telecommuting with Lockheed. Talk about stressed! Over the next few years, I often recalled my grandfather’s words – encouraging me to always do things I loved, and urging me to be a missionary doctor. My grandfather was a Methodist minister and instilled in me the value and reward of living a life of service. With his words echoing in my head and after years of living parallel lives, I had another revelation – do what you love, love what you do. So I left Lockheed and went full time at the Center.
Three years after being fulltime at the Center, one of my client’s told me about a position with an organization she was a part of. I really had no intention of going back to work for someone, but after three years of building a business in rural America (slow but steady), I was open to what the Universe would present. The twists and turns of that client relationship led me to my current position with the Consortium.
Managing and developing wellness programs for 16 colleges is quite an undertaking, but I love it. My job is the perfect blend of all of my life’s experiences. My engineering degree and training taught me how to understand complex systems, which oddly enough, was a perfect foundation for my work in wellness since the body is a complex system. My work at Lockheed gave me a great foundation in managing programs and working with leaders in organizations. My work at the Center gave me insight into the complexities of helping people become their best, healthiest selves. Every day, I get to bring the best of my best to work. Who could ask for more!
Managing wellness programs in the academic community comes with its own set of opportunities for growth. Our schools are old – hundreds of years old, and they come with a tradition and culture that is not easily influenced. When I first joined the Consortium, the wellness programs were seen as “that thing HR makes us do so we can get our premium discount”. The executive leadership at the schools was aware they had a wellness program because they were required to participate in a biometrics screening and complete a health risk assessment each year. I quickly realized the cart had been put before the horse, and that to have any real success, we were going to have to get the senior leaders on board. Thank goodness for Welcoa’s 7 Benchmarks.
After immersing myself in Welcoa’s online training (I’m talking real immersion. I achieved Welcoa Faculty status in a matter of months), I felt confident that I had the tools to approach the leaders at my schools and make the case for wellness. It certainly wasn’t a onetime shot, but slowly, I was able to help them see how wellness was more than just some “HR program”, but really a strategic initiative that was vital to the wellbeing of the entire organization – not just the employees. They liked it! Over time, we worked together to develop diverse, high functioning wellness teams on each campus who provided input and direction for their program. They began to take ownership and began to see how creating the conditions for wellbeing flowed naturally with the normal operations of their schools.
At one of the colleges, the Dining Services director was really interested in helping people learn how to eat more healthily. Bringing my nutritional expertise to the table, I worked with Dining Services, HR and several faculty and developed the Healthy Lunchbox Program. The goal of the program was to help people learn to eat healthy and to show them the powerful role diet plays in restoring and maintaining their wellbeing. (It’s important to note that the core concept of Metabolic typing (MT) is that we treat the person who has the illness, not the illness the person has. Given the right input, the body can heal itself.) Originally, we thought we would allow 15-20 people in the program, but the response was overwhelming. We ended up with more than 60 participants! Over an 8-week period, participants learned how their bodies most efficiently used food for energy, repair and restoration based on their Metabolic type. Dining Services provided a free MT-specific lunch to all participants and a health coach was available to help participants review diet journals, develop meal plans, and assess their progress. We took basic measurements (height weight, BMI) for each participant and collected information about any health conditions or issues participants were struggling with. The health coach also facilitated classes on stress management, behavior change and the importance of physical activity during the program. At the end of 8 weeks, the results were amazing!
60% of participants lost weight
Several participants reported lowering medications for blood sugar maintenance
Several participants reported they no longer had need for digestive aids
All participants reported increased energy, increased mental clarity and over-all sense of well being
… all from eating differently!
The program received recognition from the President and the Provost of the college. And Dining Services is submitting information about the program for consideration for an Innovation Award from the National Association of College and University Food Services organization. Outcome to be determined!
Another challenge in implementing wellness programs across 16 college campuses is accessibility and delivery of programs. The faculty and staff at each college each have very different schedules. Housekeeping comes in at 6am and leaves at 3pm. Dining Service employees are never available for a traditional Lunch and Learn. Faculty schedules vary daily and are fraught with department meetings, planning hours and time to assist students. No one had time to “do wellness”. Everyone had a need to be well.
Working with my health advocate/coach on each campus (I have a staff of 6), we devised a plan to deliver our programs differently. We would still offer onsite educational programs (Lunch and Learns, or Live and Learns if they didn’t happen at lunch time.) But we also developed a series of webinars and on-demand courses. The webinars allowed participants to participate in educational sessions without leaving their offices, and the on-demand courses gave individuals the flexibility to learn at a time that was most convenient to them. The webinars also gave us the ability to include employees from multiple colleges in live training sessions. Bringing our delivery process into the 21st Century more than doubled our participation in our educational programs and garnered rave reviews from our participants.
I can’t say that I’ve always been consciously health-minded. I ran track in high school and was ranked 2nd in the nation as a 100m hurdler. Traveling across the country to compete certainly kept me active and in shape. But after college, “life” started to happen and I slowly became less active. As I learned more and more about nutrition, health and healing my mindset began to change. As Maya Angelou says, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I’m fortunate to live in an area where farmer’s markets abound and I know the people who raise the chickens I eat. The food is fresh and clean, like the mountain air I breathe on bike rides along winding mountain roads.
You would think with all this serene living stress would not be an issue. HA! My mom says “You either have stress or you have a tombstone, so you better learn to manage it.” Boy, was she right. As I’ve continued to learn how to not just manage, but become more resilient in my dealings with stress, I wrote and self-published a book – “Who? Me? Stressed?”. It’s written in layman’s terms and helps people understand what stress is, where it comes from, how it affects our bodies and our health, and provides them strategies for managing and mitigating stress.
I am an educator at heart and I LOVE sharing information with people to help them become savvy advocates for their wellbeing. With the knowledge I’ve gained through my formal education, and through my association with organizations like Welcoa and HERO (Health Enhancement Research Organization), I’ve had the opportunity to promote health and wellness within my community – teaching at local libraries, community colleges and for government and civic organizations, and now, developing programs for colleges and universities. What a journey!
One of the best lessons I’ve learned as a wellness educator is to let my light shine. Life is real. People are real. And I’ve found that allowing myself to be “appropriately vulnerable” – sharing my story, my struggles and my successes, helps people to see the possibilities for their own lives. Nobody wants to listen to the story of someone who is perfect. “Perfect” is not attainable… not even approachable for most people. I’m a nutritionist, but not a nutrition-Nazi. I eat cake. I have stress. I don’t always exercise as much or as often as I would like. At 51, my hormones are a little wacky and I’m working on getting them balanced again. The struggle is real! I know many practitioners who “sit in the authority of their knowledge” publically, but are seriously struggling personally. And that’s okay. We all have something valuable to share, wherever we are in our journeys. For me, I share my story with people and they appreciate that I am candid and honest and that even the “one with all the smarts” still has to do the work.
I’m super excited about the direction that the industry is moving in. Recognizing the connection between organizational wellbeing and employee wellbeing really opens the door for truly creating the conditions where wellbeing is ubiquitous within organizations of all types. Moving beyond a primary focus on physical health and embracing the wellbeing of the whole person, within the context of the organization, not only makes what we do more valuable to the individual but also to the organizational operation as well. Many of the physical conditions we seek to help people remedy are the symptoms of stressors in other areas of their lives – career, financial, social, community, emotional. When we can help people find balance and fulfilment in these areas, we create a space where they have the mental bandwidth to think about changing their diets and adding some exercise into their daily routines. Until then, it’s just one more thing to do.
Going forward, I plan to continue adding to my knowledge base – connecting and collaborating with professionals and thought leaders in the industry. I also plan to pursue certifications in Intrinsic Coaching and Organizational Development, as I see wellbeing efforts moving out of the HR realm an into the OD/Learning and Development arena.
I guess in some ways I have fulfilled my grandfather’s dream for my life of being a missionary doctor. While I’m not a physician or medical doctor, I do see my work as an N.D. and wellness educator as my mission, my calling. Perhaps, through spirit, my grandparents are still guiding my steps – spurring on my passion for sharing knowledge and leading a life of service to others.