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ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS: Fort Wayne roommates’ weight loss transforms their health, lives

Easter Seals Arc staff Rachel Wehrwein, left, helps Vera Richardson prepare baked chicken for dinner. Richardson, who now steers away from convenience foods and uses much less butter in her meals, has lost 79 pounds and transformed her life in the last few months. (Courtesy photo)
Vera Richardson, left, uses a treadmill at the Jackson R. Lehman YMCA off of St. Joe Center Road under the supervision of Easter Seals Arc staff Susan Mbugua, right, on July 9. (By Tanya Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Easter Seals Arc client Evelyn Gleason lifts weights at the Jackson R. Lehman YMCA off of St. Joe Center Road on July 9. Gleason, who just a year ago needed to carry an oxygen tank, has lost 34 pounds and now needs only one insulin shot a day instead of four to control her type 2 diabetes. (By Tanya Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Mary Welch, right, says it was hard at first to get used to the healthy lifestyle practiced by her new Easter Seals Arc roommates, but she is thrilled to have lost 17 pounds in just a few weeks. At left is staff member Susan Mbugua, who is part of the team implementing the healthy living plan. (By Tanya Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Easter Seals Arc client Mary Richardson wipes down a treadmill at the Jackson R. Lehman YMCA off of St. Joe Center Road on July 9. Richardson, who has prediabetes, has lost 17 pounds just a few weeks after moving into an apartment with two other clients on a healthy living plan. (By Tanya Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Easter Seals Arc staff member Rachel Wehrwein says working out with diabetic residents on a healthy living plan has made her more accountable toward managing her own diabetes. Here she uses a stair climber while keeping an eye on the women she escorted to the Jackson R. Lehman YMCA off of St. Joe Center Road on July 9. (By Tanya Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Vera Richardson prepares to sample a cookie in a healthy cooking class at Easter Seals Arc in May. Richardson, who was once one of the agency's most at-risk clients because of her out-of-control blood sugar, has lost 79 pounds over the last year and transformed her life. (Courtesy photo)

Anyone who believes weight loss is an all-or-nothing proposition ought to meet Vera Richardson.

At 308 pounds, she’s still well over twice her ideal body weight.

But even if she never sheds another ounce, the 79 pounds she’s lost over the past year has literally changed her life.

She can sit in the bleacher seats at Komet hockey games now, for instance, rather than being relegated to the handicapped section.

She has more energy, enough so that she’s started going to the YMCA to walk on the treadmill.

She’s even found a job — a big step for an intellectually disabled woman who, just a year or two ago, was considered one of Easter Seals Arc’s most at-risk clients because of her out-of-control blood sugar, blood pressure and breathing issues.

“She was a sick young lady,” says Easter Seals staff member Rachel Wehrwein, who recalls that when she previously worked with Richardson in 2015. It was difficult for her to stay awake, much less get up and move around.

When Wehrwein resumed working with Richardson last August, though, change was already underway. The house supervisor of the Reed Road apartment Richardson shares with two other women, noting that all three had diabetes, had set up a plan to help them make lifestyle changes.

It was to be a team effort. Staff were told to avoid bringing in fast food for their own dinners, to avoid causing cravings among the residents.

Nearly a year later, Richardson, 35, has gone from five insulin shots per day down to two and is averaging a consistent loss of two to three pounds per week. With help from the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation program, she started her new job as a Parkview Health janitor last week.

Roommate Evelyn Gleason, 59, no longer carries an oxygen tank and has gone from four insulin shots a day to one. She’s down to 211 from a starting weight of 245, and loves working out with “the muscle heads” in the weight room at the Jackson R. Lehman YMCA off of St. Joe Center Road.

Their new roommate Mary Welch, 39, who has prediabetes, has gone from 275 to 258 in just a few weeks.

“When I first moved in with these girls, it was hard,” admits Welch, who loves to cook and bake. That hasn’t changed. But her portion control has. Now she has one brownie, then puts the rest away for later.

All three women are learning to read nutrition labels to monitor their serving sizes.

“I eat small portions. I don’t go and get seconds,” Richardson said.

They’re also finding substitutes for their favorite snacks. Richardson now munches on cashews rather than candy and Oreos. Gleason eats honey-coated peanuts instead of cake. Welch likes prepackaged protein “go-packs” of cheese, nuts and veggies.

A core element of the Easter Seals philosophy is allowing residents to make their own decisions, and that applies to the roommates’ healthy lifestyle plan. It’s not a forced-diet situation, all three women agreed.

If they have a craving for an ice cream sundae, for instance, Wehrwein said, they discuss it with house supervisor Charrisse Walker. Walker helps them review how long it’s been since they indulged in a sugary treat, but it’s up to them to decide what to do.

As the weight has come off, their motivation has increased.

“Once Vera started seeing results, there was no stopping her,” Wehrwein said.

Though Gleason, the resident wisecracker, jokes about missing the days when she pigged out on pizza, she admits that the meals they eat now – typically a starch, a single serving of baked meat and as much veggies as they care to eat – “are delicious.”

Welch, who initially dreaded their weekly weigh-ins at the YMCA, says that stepping on the scale now “is exciting.”

All three women enjoy going to the YMCA up to three evenings a week with Wehrwein and staff member Susan Mbugua, who work out alongside them. Third-shift staff Cheryl Peggins and Tonnette Griffin – along with Patricia Bailey, who is Gleason’s sister as well as Richardson’s behavior specialist – are all part of the support team.

Wehrwein, who also has diabetes, says that working with the women has helped make her more accountable for her own health. She’s lost 14 pounds since April, and her blood sugar is down as well.

Richardson, she says, knows the signs of blood sugar highs and lows so well that she will sometimes spot when Wehrwein is having problems before she’s even aware of it herself.

“They keep me in line, that’s for sure,” she said. “If I have a candy wrapper in the car and they get in the car . . . boy, do I hear about it!”

Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at tischcaylor@gmail.com. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The

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