Taking on Diabetes, Block by Block
There are close to 10,000 adults living in Camden, New Jersey, who have type 2 diabetes, yet for decades long-time resident Novelette Wilson had felt alone. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes nearly 30 years ago, Wilson says it was only recently that she finally found the support she needed to help effectively manage her disease thanks to diabetes education classes held every Friday at Fairview Community Center.
Tucked inside a brick building in a historic section of the city built to house shipyard workers during World War I, the center’s gatherings have become a lifeline to residents like Wilson who find the daily demands of managing diabetes difficult to handle on their own.
Diabetes peer educator Jacqueline Charles (left) and city resident Novelette Wilson (right) at a recent diabetes education class at the Fairview Community Center in Camden, N.J. Trained and supervised peer educators like Charles serve as a vital link between health care service providers, community support services and people in the community.
The classes are offered in four-week sessions covering topics ranging from basic disease information to diet and nutrition and improving patient-physician communication. But many participants come back session after session, drawn by the sense of community that the classes also provide.
“We’re a team and our goal is to do better with our diabetes one day at a time,” says the 61-year-old Wilson. “By coming here, my whole life is turning around.”
The weekly classes Wilson attends are funded in part through the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s Together on Diabetes®: Communities Uniting to Meet America’s Diabetes Challenge, a major philanthropic initiative that confronts the rising threat of type 2 diabetes in the U.S.
The number of people in the U.S. diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has more than tripled since 1980 and, if current trends hold, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in three American adults could have diabetes by 2050.
Funded at $100 million over five years, Together on Diabetes is the largest corporate philanthropic initiative ever made in the U.S. to address this growing problem. Like other Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation initiatives, Together on Diabetes focuses on helping communities and populations that bear a disproportionate disease burden. For type 2 diabetes in the U.S., that means the poor, the elderly and minority populations. Together on Diabetes seeks to help adults living with type 2 diabetes to better self-manage their disease and navigate the health care system, while also strengthening the community-based services that support people with diabetes in their homes and neighborhoods through the course of their disease.
In Camden, a low-income city of 77,000 residents that sits across from Philadelphia on the Delaware River, the numbers are striking. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes among adults is 12.8 percent – nearly 50 percent higher than New Jersey’s average. To help improve patient self-management, education and support, Together on Diabetes last year awarded $3 million over five years to the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.
Patricia Doykos, Ph.D., director, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, says the work of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers exemplifies the core principles of Together on Diabetes.
Diabetes education classes are helping patients in Camden, N.J., to better self-manage their condition. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes among adults in Camden is 12.8 percent – nearly 50 percent higher than the state average.
“It’s rooted in faith in the capacity of people and the power of communities to prevail over complex problems like diabetes, and it succeeds by harnessing that power – mobilizing communities in the fight against disease,” says Doykos. “It’s about listening to the people you’re trying to help, getting their input on how to address the problem, their buy-in of the solutions, and their participation in the process. When that happens, you’ve got true community ownership of the program, a true partnership, as well as transparency with respect to results and progress.”
Although the diabetes education classes are just one aspect of the Coalition’s efforts to improve outcomes for residents with diabetes, organizers say they are critical.
“Health education raises awareness and encourages behavior change on both a personal and community level,” says Nadia Ali, project manager of the Camden Citywide Diabetes Collaborative, which is part of the Coalition. “Through our current diabetes class offerings, trust is established and a sense of community is formed among patients in an organic atmosphere, facilitating this very important dialogue around healthy behaviors."
Because Camden is comprised of distinct neighborhoods, Coalition partners offer diabetes education classes throughout the city, six in all. The Camden Citywide Diabetes Collaborative offers three, including two in Spanish.
“One of the things we’ve seen clearly is where you live in Camden is your home base,” says Francine Grabowski, a lead diabetes educator for the Coalition. “People prefer to stay in their own neighborhoods. We are really trying to give residents a sense that they can improve their health together in their own community.”
The Fairview Community Center sits on Yorkship Square, a small central park that is surrounded by a few storefronts, including a small grocery, physician’s office and check-cashing business. On any given day, neighbors might see Jacqueline Charles walking around the square and surrounding blocks, knocking on doors or stopping people on the sidewalk to remind them to come to the education classes or offer them a ride to a yoga class. Two years ago, Charles was a participant in one of Grabowski’s diabetes education classes. Now she’s a diabetes peer educator who offers support and guidance to participants in the program.
“I had all the symptoms, but I never knew what diabetes was,” says Charles, recalling how she was first diagnosed 10 years ago.
To learn more about the disease, Charles tried a diabetes education class in a neighboring town but found the distance inconvenient. She then learned of a class at a community center a block from her house and signed up. It wasn’t long before she began making lifestyle changes, including embracing a healthy diet that she’s since shared with her husband and three adult children.
“If I’m eating this way, everybody is going to eat this way,” says Charles, who is the cook in her household. “I found out if you don’t bring unhealthy food into the house, you don’t eat it. If you don’t bring an unhealthy drink into the house, you don’t drink it.”
Because she was a quick study in effective self-management, Grabowski approached her about becoming a peer educator.
“I couldn’t do what I do without her,” Grabowski says of Charles. “I need her.”
With a soothing accent that hints at her upbringing in St. Vincent and the Grenadines islands in the Caribbean, Charles is gentle but persistent in her outreach. She gives her phone number to everyone. At church she makes sure to remind fellow parishioners that the diabetes classes are available. If someone is reluctant to sign up for the education classes, she will call the person on the phone to check in and give a caring nudge.
“I have experience I can offer other people,” she says. “I know where they are coming from and if I can do it, they can do it.”