Outdoor Connection

Melissa Williams hiked across California to raise diabetes awareness

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Last January, Melissa Williams set out to take a 500-mile walk across California to raise awareness of diabetes. Melissa was spurred on to take action after learning that one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050. She and her team traveled throughout the state, stopping at middle schools to present her classroom workshops on diabetes to a total of 9,000 students. One year later, we sat down with her to find out how her experience went and if it was successful.

How many schools in total did you visit in total?

We visited seventeen schools all along the California Coast, from San Diego to San Francisco.

Were the children receptive to your message?

Yes! The kids were actually more receptive than we expected. From the beginning, we have stories of kids responding very positively, like the trouble boy who shushed his classmates to be quiet and listen or the girl who poured her sugary soda out the window of the classroom.

We laughed that it was like being stand-up comedians. We would constantly be testing out new material and adjusting the workshops accordingly. For example, in one workshop, I made a throwaway comment about McDonald's not being healthy. It wasn't particularly insightful, but the entire class cracked up. I tried it again in the next class, and, again, everyone laughed. I had stumbled onto something there. Multiply that by a thousand, and, by the end, the workshops were finely tuned and kept the kids attention from start to finish.

Did you go through a few shoes?

I am a die-hard fan of Brooks shoes, and, during the walk, I alternated between two pairs at a time and went through five pairs total. There was nothing better than the first days of wearing the new shoes!

What type of an entourage did you roll with?

[To say] "Entourage" gives us more credit than we deserve. For the majority of the walk, it was me and my mother. Then, at times, we were joined by one or two others along the way, like our very talented photographer, Maureen Roque.

Did you have to brave the elements during your walk? What was the worst weather you experienced?

We were amazingly lucky. It was a particularly wet winter for Southern California, and there were days of what felt like monsoons. But, for all the rain, we lucked out that during the worst of it, we were doing workshops in schools.

Have you heard from any of the children you spoke to on your trip?

We've had some great feedback from the teachers passing along stories from the kids. My favorite is a girl who went up to her PE teacher and said something like, "This week I'm going to run the mile faster than ever before, so I don't get diabetes."

Would you consider the walk a success?

Yes! The walk was a success on more levels than I originally realized.

First, it was a proof-of-principle for this approach to outreach, and we successfully demonstrated that seventeen schools were receptive to it. Second, it was aimed at raising awareness of diabetes in school children, and we reached over 8,000 students with our classroom-based workshops. Finally, it was designed to encourage healthier habits, and we saw immediate evidence that kids were responding to the content of the workshops and making healthier choices.

We learned a great deal during the walk. Although the walk is over, our efforts continue, and now our challenge is to build on this momentum. We reached 8,000 students over four months with just over $3,000 cash. I'd say that's a success, but it's also just the beginning.

Where do you take it from here? What next?

Now we are hard at work on two fronts - analyzing the data from the first walk and expanding our model to additional geographies. It's still early days, but early results on both fronts are encouraging!

If you are interested in supporting Melissa's fight to increase awareness of diabetes please email her or visit the CA Wellness Walk website.

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