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Faithfully Fit in the Bronx

It's a  few days after Thanksgiving and only two kids have turned up at the Bronx Christian Fellowship on Gun Hill Road. Jonathan Arroyo, 12, and Joseph Ross, 14 are ready for their weekly fitness class, wearing sweatpants and their new Army t-shirts. In the chilly church hall, Arroyo and Ross stand with a group of much less fit adults: Michelle Chapman, 45, Sharon Heyward, 44 and Jimmy Rodriguez, 44. They too wear sweatpants, baggy t-shirts and sneakers. Rather than reciting hymns, the small group reads aloud about the hazards of sugary beverages and how “water is all you need.” Loyce Godfry, health coordinator for the Bronx Christian Fellowship, stands off to the side and watches, occasionally mouthing along with the words of the script. This isn’t her first time teaching healthy habits to the Bronx community, many of who were adults.

Twenty kids have signed up for the class, but if Godfry is disappointed in the small turnout, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she is eager to push the benefits of more exercise and healthier eating, the message of “Fit to Lead,” a six-week youth fitness program in the church with volunteers from the Army’s Bronx Recruitment Center. "Fit to Lead is about reducing screen-time, reducing soda consumption, increase physical activity, and reduce junk food," said Godfry.
Loyce Godfry is the creator of the faith-based fitness program Fine Fit and Fabulous. She works with the Bronx Christian Fellowship to implement a new program called "Fit to Lead"

Loyce Godfry is the creator of the faith-based fitness program Fine Fit and Fabulous. She works with the Bronx Christian Fellowship to implement a new program called "Fit to Lead"

Each Sunday, Army volunteers teach the participants how to exercise and maintain a fitness routine. Then, during the week, Army mentors call participants to make sure they are on track. Arryo and Ross are regulars and are called upon to demonstrate a proper crunch and push-up. The adults in class are there  getting healthy themselves and also to be role models. “I need to lose weight, and I need to eat healthier,” Heyward said as the class prepares to stretch. “Besides, I think it motivates the children if they see us doing it.” The small group stands in a circle around Sgt. Emmanuel Zapata and begins to stretch their arms. Zapata explains each move but the two youngest participants—Arroyo and Ross—already seem well versed in this routine while the adults struggle to do just five sit-ups. In a borough where French fries are more accessible than treadmills, a growing number of churches have stepped in to educate Bronx residents on the dangers of obesity. The need is great: nearly 42 percent of young people in the Bronx are obese, which puts them at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Public health agencies have tried to stem the crisis through efforts like Green Carts, which provide fresh produce in poor neighborhoods. But it’s clearly not enough. That's where the churches come in. Because they represent an institution that people are familiar with and trust (in contrast to some doctors and hospitals), churches have a receptive audience. With obesity at record levels, a growing number of congregations say health and fitness should be part of their mission. Godfry is a veteran of the faith-based fitness movement. “Fit to Lead” grew out of a 12-week adult diabetes-prevention program she created in 1999 called "Fine, Fit and Fabulous"  which she brought to churches throughout the Bronx and in Harlem. Now, she works for Bronx Health REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Health), an organization that aims to eliminate disparities in the healthcare industry. Bronx Health REACH created a specific section called the Faith-Based Outreach Initiative to implement programs like "Fine, Fit and Fabulous", created fitness guides and healthy cookbooks, and gives  seminars on heart health and diabetes. Godfry knows that faith-based fitness isn’t the whole answer, but she thinks it can be an important part of an overall health strategy in the borough. “There seems to be less weight gain,” Godfry said. “So in some kind of way, there is some kind of message that obesity a problem and it is a problem that we need to address. I think most faith-based group are hearing it loud and clear.” According to the data Bronx Health REACH collected last year, nearly 79 percent of participants in “Fine Fit and Fabulous” lost weight. On average, this year’s 17,000 participants lost 4.6 pounds. The churches seem to be particularly effective in reaching African-Americans, and the need in that community is the most acute. According to the American Obesity Association, nearly 70 percent of African-Americans are overweight and 40 percent are obese, higher than the national average. Traditional public health outreach efforts haven’t been successful in reaching them. African-Americans are less likely to have health insurance than whites and more likely to be low-income—both of which make it harder to get access to healthcare. The disparity affects all ages from babies (black infant mortality is higher than whites) to adults. “A black man will wait longer in a waiting room than a white man,” said Joyce H. Davis, the health coordinator at Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Highbridge. “We should stay healthy so we shouldn’t have to see any doctor. We are not trying to close down our hospitals, but we know that we have a lesser chance of getting ill this way.” In other parts of the country, faith-based fitness programs are not confined to poor communities. Gwen Shamblin author of “The Weight Down Diet,” created a faith-based curriculum that focuses on portion control. The Tennessee-native has implemented her program across the country with workshops, seminars and through her book. Her own church, the Remnant Fellowship in Tennessee, has lost over 20,000 pounds altogether. Shamblin has also been featured on several television shows, such as Tyra Banks and the Today Show to talk about how God connects with a person’s greed. “I think people mean well but they know they are plagued with food, overindulging in alcohol drugs, cigarette,” said Shamblin. “But they need to get back into God’s boundaries. God is saying, ‘No that’s enough.’ The average person knows what they want. If you listen to the body, it will tell you how much and what you want to eat.” Some critics say that linking faith to fitness in such an overt way could create a spiritual crisis if a participant fails to lose weight. But in the Bronx the message is less about God and more about health. “The faith-based community is the core of every community,” said the Rev. Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in Pelham Parkway. “We reach the masses. You have a collective and built-in audience. The church creates a serene environment for people to cope with some of the problems they are having.” Fitness in the church is not a matter of praying off the pounds, English said. “It’s not like God is going to take the spoon out of your mouth,” she said. “God can help you with doing those things that are right. Instances in time where you feel like you fail, you can pick yourself back up and try again. You can always live in very positive way. That all stems from faith." For many Bronx residents, it’s far more powerful to hear the message of health and wellness from the pulpit than from a doctor, says the Rev. Robert L. Foley, the pastor of the Cosmopolitan Church of the Lord Jesus in Fordham. “I think it is true across the board that people place a lot of value on what comes from that pulpit,” he said. “It’s a word that they trust and believe in.” Foley often places health-conscious messages in his sermons. “I try to include a health message—a reference to a health issue or concern or tip that will be beneficial to our members,” he  said. “Recently I delivered a message on retrospective--looking back. Even when I look back on our congregation I see members who have been with us for 30 years I can recall episodes in their lives when they were on the edge of a stroke. But as they assumed more responsibilities on their health, they improved." Godfry says it is the environments in which the fitness and nutrition are conducted that make the program so effective. After 12 weeks, the church can continue with the curriculum or make their own nutrition plan, reducing salt or sugar intake, or perhaps increase the amount of vegetables they consume. Some changes are clearly taking place. Foley remembers that the after-service supper on Sundays used to be filled with plates of fried fish and fried chicken. Today supper is replaced with low-sodium and low-sugar foods, baked chicken and turkey and more vegetables. "We've made a conscientious effort so that we are not eating as much sugar and we are certainly not using as much salt as we've been accustomed to," he said. But the Bronx pastor also remembers seeing more members of his church back then. "There were some people who have been with me for 37 years," said Foley. "But we've had some people who did not pay attention to sodium intake and high cholesterol foods and many of those folks are not here today." The Cosmopolitan Church has adopted the Fine Fit and Fabulous curriculum and has a health committee that coordinates with the Bronx Health REACH once a month. "This is not just a philosophical thing," he said. "I can see the impact. I buried them." That's experience he's praying not to repeat too soon.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods2 Comments

1512-1524 Leland Ave.

by Shefali Kulkarni and Leslie Minora

The super at four decrepit Leland Avenue apartment buildings is looking for a new job. Management gives him barely enough garbage bags to keep the residences tidy, he said, let alone materials to make even the simplest repairs. “It’s like a captain and you give him a ship with a big hole in it, and you hand him a Band-Aid,” said James Totterman, who can’t even fix the leak in his own ceiling at 1516 Leland Ave. Everytime he patches it up, the leak doggedly returns. “The property is just in debt,” said Totterman, of the four buildings he is supposed to maintain between 1512 and 1524 Leland Ave. Fannie Mae foreclosed on all these buildings in August. The court appointed Bronx lawyer, Edward Koester, as the receiver. His duty is to collect rent and make necessary repairs. At the beginning of October, Fannie Mae advanced $50,000 for repairs, Koester said, because many people were not paying their rent. How far does $50,000 go? “Not far,” Koester admitted. Totterman laughed at the amount, calling it “offensive.” He said that he has yet to see contractors making any repairs to the buildings’ 57 apartments. Totterman speculated that people in charge may be neglecting the buildings so that tenants will move out, and the buildings can be sold. These four properties tell part of the tragic story of the mortgage crisis that sent the U.S. economy into a downward spiral a year ago. A company connected to Ocelot bought the buildings (and one other building) for almost $7 million in July of 2007, at the top of a property market that was awash with easy credit. The cycle of blame is so difficult to trace that it makes residents’ heads spin. Delia Guzman, who lives on the first floor of 1520 Leland Ave., said that people from so many city departments have knocked on her door that she cannot even tell who is responsible for what. The one thing she does know is that she is still living in an apartment with roaches, mice, mold, and leaks. Her bathroom ceiling has caved in, and her living room floor is buckling from water damage. There are mice feces in her kitchen, and her walls are literally crumbling. As management of the four buildings shifts continuously, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has sent officials to enforce building codes and coordinate with tenants, but unsuccessfully. Their efforts through the Alternative Enforcement Program brought teams of officials to inspect hazardous residential houses. “But I gave up on that,” said Guzman, who found the city’s housing program ineffective. With an uncertain future and little confidence in the management structure after foreclosure, residents of the Leland Ave. apartments are left in limbo.

Posted in Housing0 Comments

The Bronx’s Own Socialist Calls it a Day

The Bronx’s Own Socialist Calls it a Day

by Shefali Kulkarni

Frances Villar at the 56th district poll in P.S. 85

Frances Villar at the 56th district poll in P.S. 85

With two children at home sick with pink eye, a broken cell phone and the last of her $19,000 budget spent on Spanish and English fliers, the candidate on the ticket for the Party for Socialism and Liberation campaigned as hard as she could until the polls closed on election night. Frances Villar, the Lehman College student and single mom, won only 1 percent of the vote in the mayoral race on  Nov. 3rd. She had no expectations the day would end otherwise. Still, the 26-year-old had no regrets. The Bronx's own candidate for mayor giggled when she saw her name on the ballot. "I think it's funny that I'm on line F and my name is Frances," she said as she left the voting booth at P.S. 85 in Fordham. "But it's a real honor, it feels great." Villar, the youngest candidate and the only woman on the ballot, spent election day passing out fliers at polling centers in the Bronx, Washington Heights and Harlem as a team of nearly 200 volunteers did the same across the city. Why did she run? Villar said her party selected her last June after she put together a platform focused on the housing crisis. She found out she was running for mayor via text message. "I remember getting the text during class," she said. "It just said, 'Congrats Comrade." Villar pledged to present herself as a true grassroots candidate. "I'm just like everyone else," she said. "The more I thought about all the reasons why I shouldn't run, the more I realized that they humanized me." As president and founder of a tenants association on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx, Villar vowed to remove harassing police officers from apartment hallways, and to prevent evictions. "We have enough issues to deal with in this city, the last thing we need is to kick people out onto the street," she said in a debate last week. Some voters responded to her message.  "I like seeing people in the Bronx sticking together," said Julian Rodriguez, 23, who stopped to read a flier. "I think we really need to work on keeping the Bronx un-gentrified. I don't think the rest of the borough gets it." After Nov. 3, Villar said she plans to finish her degree at Lehman College in education and become a high school teacher. She is also eager to see her party move forward, past the mayoral election. "Even if I don't get elected, nothing is going to change. It's going to take the people to really make change in this country," she said.

Posted in Politics0 Comments

Meet the Socialist Candidate from the Bronx

Meet the Socialist Candidate from the Bronx

by Shefali Kulkarni

Photo By/Shefali Kulkarni

Villar hopes her candidacy will inspire ordinary New Yorkers. Photo by Shefali Kulkarni

After arriving late to the Party for Socialism and Liberation's headquarters--a renovated hair salon on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem--Frances Villar, 26, threw her coat on an old barbershop chair in the back of the office, and began to vent about traffic. "I'm only human," she said to campaign assistant Yari Osorio. The Bronx single mother of two--a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter-- had raced along the Cross Bronx Expressway to get to the party headquarters in time for a phone interview. After selling her Subaru to pay bills, she borrowed her father's car to make the rounds between school, home and work. Villar had spent the morning at the doctor’s office; her daughter has pink eye. “I’m a mother first, what could I do?” She missed the interview, but her day was still full. Her Blackberry reminded her that she had to finish a midterm for her education class at Lehman College, where she is studying biology and education, and prepare for a third party mayoral debate in Chelsea that evening. Villar is the most visible third party candidate in the mayoral elections. Her campaign chest in only $19,000—a paltry amount compared to the $85 million of his own money that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent. But Villar stands out in other ways. She is the youngest candidate, th only woman and the only immigrant (she came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was just three). "We thought, let's pick the reasons why we want to run in this election, and then let's pick someone. I was the complete opposite of everyone running in this election," she said. Villar's platform is simple socialism: put the working-class first. Her campaign aims to end all evictions and foreclosures, fight against police brutality and make CUNY a free college for New Yorkers. But she faces an uphill battle debunking the myths of socialism. "Socialism is something to be proud of," she said. "There is nothing more powerful than the working people." Villar stresses that she is an ordinary working-class woman and that is what she hopes voters want to see in a mayor. "It's hard to do that when you have a billionaire and a former bank executive running for office," she said, referring to Bloomberg and Bill Thompson, the Democratic contender. At Monday night’s third party candidates debate, Villar stepped up to the podium and realized she possessed another distinctive quality. “I’m also the shortest candidate,” she told the 30 audience members as she lowered the microphone. Villar has a mass of dark, thick, black hair and a broad smile she rarely shows when she talks about the current administration. Her campaign slogan -- “Billionaires, your time is up” -- is a call to bring politics back to the people. Earlier this year, Bloomberg created an election reform platform titled "Easy to Vote, Easy to Run." His goal was to "eliminate the barriers that prevent civic-minded New Yorkers...from participating in the democratic process and running for office," according to the four-page memorandum on the city's website. Villar and her campaign said no amount of campaign reform will make it easier to run in the elections. "It's the hardest thing in the world to run for mayor," said Osario, who volunteers 12-hour days at the campaign headquarters. "Most of us aren't even registered to vote, and it's because of the system." Bloomberg's plan, she said, "isn't about the people, it's about the money." The anti-billionaire-Bloomberg sentiments were amplified at Monday night's debate, which was held in the Hudson Guild Elliot Center on West 26th Street. Linda Stewart, an audience member, said that the third party candidates are looking more appealing the longer Bloomberg remains in office. "I recently read that the mayor is going to remove various commissioners from his staff that have been in his office for eight or more years," she said, "so eight years is long enough for everyone else, but not him? It's ridiculous." "We need a new kind of politics in this city," Villar said at the debate. "Politics is no longer about the people. Where is the humanity in politics anymore? It’s insulting to have a billionaire tell us what we need when I have to decide between a MetroCard and feeding my kids.” Her children, Jaina and Justin, will help her hand out flyers on Nov. 3. “Jaina’s been telling her friends ‘It’s like running for president,’ but she is four years old. I’m not going to take that away from her.” A photo of her children is set as the desktop background on her Blackberry phone. "Justin graduated in honors from kindergarten," she said to her campaign team on Monday. "They gave him extra ribbons and buttons." Villar came to this country with her father, now a taxicab driver in the Bronx, after her parents divorced. Her mother still lives in the Dominican Republic. "I miss her very much, of course," she said. “My family has been so supportive. My father and mother are very proud of me and have been helping me from the beginning.” Villar joined the Party for Socialism and Liberation after participating in the protests against immigration reform in May, 2006. She was handed a party flyer and began researching the organization. “I remember thinking, this is beautiful—this is powerful," she said. "This was politics as it should be. Politics was made to voice the needs of the people and this party was answering that call.” At the time she says she was in an abusive relationship, with a child and and new baby. She was ready to reshape her life. "I wasn't going to school," she said. "I had two part-time jobs. I was dedicated to going back to school." After she made it to Lehman College, she created a tenants association in her building on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx, and was able to get repairs and refurbish her apartment building, "without paying a dollar." She sees this as socialism in action: communities organizing to get their needs. "I hope to introduce socialism to the community," she said. "I want to better develop a better society one community at a time." Competing against Bloomberg and Thompson-- whose contributions are over $4 million--has made Villar realistic. "When we first started this, I didn't think we had a chance in hell," she said. But Villar is encouraged by her supporters. On Tuesday, the party plans to mobilize over 200 New Yorkers in all five boroughs to get their voters to the polls. “My chances are slim in a capitalist country like this one," she said. "I think my goal is really to gain movement for the party. We need to do something new in this city, so that later we can have another 26-year-old mayor.” Villar's hopes are pinned on the people. She wants New Yorkers to collaborate to get their basic needs met. "Then," she said, "we've won.”

Posted in Politics1 Comment