Courtesy of
Courtesy of

One evening in March 2010, SHIRE representatives sat with 20 Ward 8 residents in a meeting room at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church. Everyone had diabetes, hypertension or another chronic illness. They wanted to know how to manage these conditions and how to prevent complications. They wanted to know about medications. They asked for information to equip them to take charge of their health. SHIRE listened and realized that they were talking about being as well as possible even with a chronic condition. They were transcending the concept of health, which traditionally has been the absence of disease. They were talking about wellness, which encompasses not only physical health but the totality of an individual — mind, body and spirit. It became crystal clear that our participants wanted to learn how to be well even while living with a chronic condition and they needed tools and support to achieve that goal.

SHIRE’s mission since 1997 has been to help eradicate health disparities, and aid African Americans and other people of color attain optimal health and well-being. Aware of the disproportionately high levels of diabetes (nearly 1 in 5 adults) and hypertension (nearly 2 in 5 adults) in Ward 8, we have implemented many programs involving youth and adults in southeast Washington.

Our discussions in Ward 8 became a springboard. Wellness Circles became the vehicle to translate mission into action in a new way. With the nurturing of Canary Girardeau, SHIRE’s senior program associate, Wellness Circles took shape. First, we refined the message. We can be well while living with diabetes, high blood pressure or any other condition if we do three things: First, we learn all we can about our condition so we can hold informed discussions with the health providers who serve us. Second, we make the lifestyle changes needed to manage, control and ideally improve or reverse the condition. Third, we empower ourselves to become our own best health advocates and coaches. Key to the achievement of these aims would be creating a “circle” of support from others experiencing similar challenges to encourage Wellness Circle participants to make changes that enhance wellness.

Our next step was to develop Wellness Circles that supported participants in achieving these goals. We created a series of 6-8 sessions with these features:

Presentations by down-to-earth experts on chronic conditions; healthy eating, wise shopping and food preparation; reducing stress; medications and their purpose.
Physical activity (e.g., chair exercises, yoga, Tai Chi) at each session.
Goal setting, participant interaction, testimonials
Healthful meals
Incentives, such as gift cards for each participant, door prizes, and prizes for setting healthy living goals and achieving them
Celebration and recognition ceremonies with awards for health improvement and attendance

Key to the success of Wellness Circles are peer educators who recruit participants and stay in communication with their recruits to encourage sustained attendance. These SHIRE team members live in the neighborhoods where they recruit and are former Wellness Circle participants.

To date, with support from AmeriHealth Caritas District of Columbia and the Government of the District of Columbia SHIRE has engaged over 1,000 community residents. Documented results confirm the power and impact of Wellness Circles. In our last series for example, 81% reduced their blood pressure levels and similar results have been posted in previous series. Our vision is to see Wellness Circles for DC residents of all ages in every part of the city and we welcome partners who share our dream.

For more information, please visit our website at and contact SHIRE at

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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