BLACK WOMENS WELLNESS-07-07152017143814

A group of participants at the Black Women Wellness meeting at the Urban League on July 15, 2017 in Madison, WI. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

After moving to an area with little family support and taking on a busy schedule, Tamara Washington’s health started to slip. She gained weight and experienced blood pressure complications.

“I’m only 44, and I could have been a statistic,” said Washington, whose mother died when she was in her early 60s.

But then Washington was connected to the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness and met women facing similar struggles.

She lost weight, got her blood pressure down to normal, renewed her gym membership and received encouragement and support from the foundation.

“We share everything from healthy recipes to experiences with holistic medication, yoga, dance, you name it, we try to find a way to incorporate it. We are constantly reminded that we are valuable and needed,” Washington said.

On Wednesday, the foundation announced plans to open a health and wellness center for black women, heralded as the first such center specifically for black women in Dane County. The foundation will expand its services and its potential for impact on women like Washington. 

“We have been last, for so long in so many ways,” Washington said. “It’s time to start putting us first because we are worth it. The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness puts us first … This center, which in a few months will be a beautiful healing space for so many women, will also put us first.”

The new center will be located at 6601 Grand Teton Plaza. The foundation will need to raise $100,000 over the next month to expand programming and fill the mostly empty space with fitness equipment, computers, office furniture and more. The goal is to open the center by late summer.

The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness is a Dane County-based nonprofit aiming to empower black women and girls to live healthy lives. It announced the news at a Wednesday press conference with many enthusiastic attendees. 

Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the foundation, chose Wednesday to announce the news because May 22 is the anniversary of her mother’s death, who died of congestive heart failure at age 64.

“I’m still not over it … That truly devastating moment in my life was also a blessing,” Peyton-Caire said. “It changed my life, my perspective, and awakened me to something that now has become a powerful catalyst and a spark for the work that I’ve committed my life to.”

She noted her mother’s death was not an isolated incident, but “reflects a disturbing and persistent trend.”

Peyton-Caire said black women in Dane County die at disproportionate rates and younger ages from largely preventable illnesses and what Peyton-Caire termed “death by stress and pressure,” citing the many social drivers of health like housing, wealth and education.

Black women in Dane County and Wisconsin are more likely to have limited access to quality health care services, to experience higher rates of cancer and higher cancer mortality rates and to give birth to low-birthweight babies, Peyton-Caire said.

Black women have firsthand knowledge of these statistics because they help each other grieve when another friend or family member passes away too soon, she said.

At a Wednesday press conference, Peyton-Caire reflected on the history of the foundation. Black Women’s Wellness Day started with about 40 women in a small library, and has since expanded to an attendance of about 600, she said. But over time, she realized that “one day event was not enough,” and formed the foundation, partially to “assert ourselves at the decision-making tables.”

“The opportunities for black women here in Madison were few and far between until the foundation arrived on the scene,” said Mary Wells, a lifelong Madison resident. “I have personally witnessed the foundation touch thousands of lives each year.”

The organization provides a variety of services for over 1,000 women and girls every year, including prevention education, fitness and yoga classes, one-to-one wellness coaching and more.

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Christine LaShore came to her first Black Women’s Wellness event when she was high on crack cocaine. By the end of the day, she was relaxed and comfortable, and the event marked a turning point in her life. A year later, she went to treatment, and has been clean for six years. She lost weight and no longer suffers from high blood pressure.

“This foundation helped me change my mind around, to care about myself,” LaShore said.

“We do more than get women walking, running, stretching, doing yoga and eating better. We’re supporting them everyday,” Peyton-Caire said.

That includes helping women access health insurance, referring them to health clinics and providers, connecting them to housing to prevent eviction and homelessness, and encouraging them to further their education.

“And we’ve done all of this without a real home,” Peyton-Caire said. “We’ve done all of what we do in so many locations across the city … but it has been a challenge to travel and to schedule.”

The foundation looked at 40 different sites before choosing this “humble but beautiful space,” Peyton-Caire said.

She pictures the new space as a site for women to learn about nutrition, healthy mothers and babies, mental health, mindfulness and an easy place for the foundation together with its many partners.

“This space is open for all the collaboration we can possibly dream of,” Peyton-Caire said, including bringing in partners like Harambee Village doulas and centralizing efforts to address the disparities in infant mortality. “The sky is really the limit.”

Peyton-Caire thanked the many sponsors and supporters of the foundation’s work over the years.

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