Dan Mauney, a retired resident of Pope, Mississippi, went for a health checkup a few weeks after his 65th birthday. There, at the Tallahatchie General Hospital, he received an unpleasant surprise.
“My A1C [the measure of sugar in red-blood cells] was 7.7, and once you get past 6.5, that’s when you’re considered diabetic,” Mauney said.
Mauney was shocked. He was an outdoor person who had previously worked as a handyman and who enjoyed riding bikes. He confessed, however, that his diet was less than healthy.
“When I was young, I use to eat whatever I wanted,” Mauney said.
Mauney lives alone and was worried that his diabetes could affect how he took care of himself, but he is just one of many residents living around Tallahatchie County who is struggling with health issues.
According to Dr. Catherine Moring, co-owner of Delta Health Solutions, a 2012 health report ranked Tallahatchie 80 of 82 counties in Mississippi in terms of health outcomes, with one of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in the state. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America and diabetes is one of the Top 10.
“We were ranked second to last as being one of the healthy counties in one of the least healthy states,” Moring said.
In 2012, Moring was a Ph.D. student studying health and kinesiology at the University of Mississippi’s School of Applied Sciences. Originally from New Orleans, her passion was teaching people about health. While looking for a research topic for her thesis, Dr. Ed Meek, a former public relations director for the university, told her about the health problems in his home county.
She then led a team of health researchers, in partnership with the Ole Miss Center for Population Studies, to conduct a comprehensive health needs assessment and ultimately improve the overall health of those living in the county. Local residents were also asked what they thought the problems were as well as what would help them become healthier.
“We found that the community really said they needed a place to recreate and socialize, a place to learn about health, a place to come exercise, and have a park and a playground,” Moring said.
As a result, the James C. Kennedy Wellness Center opened in 2016 funded by the American media executive and philanthropist by that name. Kennedy, the chairman of Cox Enterprises, had owned a duck hunting lodge in Tallahatchie County for a long time and wanted a way to support his neighbors. The center cost $4.2 million to build and is located in the town of Charleston next to the Tallahatchie General Hospital. It is the only wellness center in the county. Dr. Moring also helped write a $550,000 grant to fund the majority of the programming costs for the center’s first three years.
Morning is now the executive director of the center and says its primary goal is to change one life at a time. The center offers a variety of classes, including diabetes management training as well as dietary and nutrition classes to teach citizens how to live with their diabetes. They also host both physical and occupational therapy classes.
The center includes a gym with a variety of workout equipment and an indoor walking trail. Membership fees start at $30 a month, but the center offers financial aid to low-income members who can’t afford to pay the fees. Outside, there is a 1.25-mile walking trail and a playground, which are free to citizens.
“We don’t want anybody to not be able to access the facility because of financial needs,” Moring said.
Moring has been able to see the impact of the center first-hand. According to the same county health ranking system, Tallahatchie is improving, thanks to increased scores for both health factors and health outcomes.
“The county has moved up to 52 in terms of the county health ranking, so we’re really proud of that,” Moring said. “We have also seen countless lives changed through our services and programming and in terms of improved health outcomes, increased quality of life, and reduction in medications.”
Moring says the results are because of the community effort. The wellness center hosts events monthly to promote public health and offers health tips on its Facebook page. Its Facebook page is full of exercises that people can do in their own homes or in the gym.
“If you engage the community, they’re gonna be a part of the solution,” Moring said.
Now, Moring said citizens want to know how to get physically active and learn how to cook healthy meals. She gets a lot of questions from people seeking information about the latest trends in health science.
“It’s been neat to see the conversations change from no one ever talking about health to lots of people talking about health,” Moring said.
She estimates that between 600 -700 people use the center each year. It gets funding partly from membership fees as well as from Tallahatchie General Hospital, grants, and annual donations from Kennedy.
Mauney credits the center with helping to keep his blood sugar at a manageable level. He visits the center about three times a week to use the exercise equipment. He also enjoys riding his bike and going for walks.
Mauney says he has adopted the Ketogenic diet, which is a low-carb diet that emphasizes getting calories from proteins and fats. He now eats healthy snacks such as nuts and pumpkin seeds.
“I’m 65 years old, and I am healthier now than I was when I was 20,” Mauney said.
While Mississippi still has some of the highest rates of obesity and heart-related illnesses in the country, the wellness center is making a difference in Tallahatchie.
“Our goal really is to help people to live their most optimal life in terms of their health and help them to be as healthy as possible,” Moring said.