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Potomac Women Honored for Public Health Work

Marilyn Gaston and Gayle Porter receive the ‘Purpose Prize’ for their support groups aimed at African-American women.

Physician Marilyn Gaston has long been concerned about the poor health of many African-American women 40 and over, who she said die of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and HIV at higher rates than any other group of women in the country.

“The good news is that the majority of these deaths are preventable, so we can change these statistics,” she said. “We do not have to continue to suffer disproportionately.”

The Potomac resident of 30 years wanted to inspire and motivate black women to make positive lifestyle changes. Gaston and her friend Gayle Porter, a psychologist and former DC resident who now splits her time between Florida and Potomac, collaborated on a health center and a successful self-help book, but they felt that more was needed to ensure long-lasting improvement in their patients’ health.

As friends for more than 28 years, Gaston and Porter can appreciate the transformative power of friendship and support from other women. They decided that all-female support groups could give their patients the necessary boost to kick unhealthy habits and change their lives for the better. The duo developed a program called Prime Time Sister Circles, a 14-week support group for African-American women ages 40 to 70 that trains them how to live healthier lives through exercise, stress management and good nutrition. About 140 women in Maryland, Washington, Illinois and Florida have taken part in the circles since their inception several years ago. The cost of participating in the circles was subsidized by groups such as the Ford Foundation, the University of Maryland and Johnson & Johnson.

PORTER POINTED OUT that in their quest to take care of others, women often overlook their own health and wellness. She described the Sister Circles as “both a support group and an information exchange group,” with professional consultants in the areas of stress management, physical activity and nutrition. The genial atmosphere of the groups helped the women open up about their struggles, receive feedback and develop a plan for improvement.

“The groups were full of joy,” said Porter. “[The women] laughed together, they cried together, and they talked about this information.”

Gaston and Porter focused on African-American women in mid-life because they felt this age group, which is often the backbone of families and church groups, would help spread the information to family and friends.

“We targeted women in midlife because we knew if we could change their lives, we would get a huge ripple effect,” said Gaston. “They would help change the lifestyles of their children, grandchildren, churches and workplaces. They would help to change the life of the community.”

Gaston, 67, and Porter, 61, were recently chosen among 1,500 nominees to receive the Purpose Prize for their work on the Sister Circles. The award was given by Civic Ventures, California-based think tank that honors non-profit leaders over the age of 60. Gaston and Porter, along with four other recipients, won $100,000 for their project as well as the opportunity to apply for grants from a $1 million “Fund for Innovation.”

The Prime Time Sister Circles program is one of numerous achievements by Gaston and Porter in the field of holistic healthcare. They operate the Gaston & Porter Health Improvement Center and are authors of “Prime Time: The African American Woman's Complete Guide to Midlife Health and Wellness,” which made Essence magazine’s bestseller list.

PATTIE HAMILTON helped organize a Sister Circle several years ago at St. Thomas More Church in Washington, DC. She said that about 16 women participated, with ages ranging from late 40s to mid-70s.

“I’ve known some of the women in that group since I was a teen, and just watching the walls come down and the women feel safe enough to actually share their deepest concerns, I think that speaks very highly of Marilyn and Gayle, and the essence of who they are,” said Hamilton, 51. “They are very loving and compassionate, and yet they’re also lovingly direct. They were able to ask very pointed questions from a place of compassion versus criticism, which I think enabled the women in the circle to bring their concerns, their missteps forward, and then revamp some of the ways they had been living their lives.”

She said that one woman in the Sister Circle discussed the stress of an adult child living in her home who was not contributing to the household, and the group helped empower the mother to stand up for herself. Hamilton said that the nutritionist’s guidance on portion control was the most helpful for her.

Denise Jones is a 47-year-old from Silver Spring who participated in a Sister Circle in 2004 and is still practicing the techniques she learned.

“[Gaston and Porter] challenged us to try to live in the moment and to look very honestly at where we are and what we’re doing in terms of our physical and emotional health and behavior,” said Jones. “The most important thing for me was having the camaraderie.

“Because we had shared experiences, there was a wonderful cross-fertilization of ideas in terms of what we could do to reach our goals,” she continued. “It became more than a support group – it was a proactive group of women.”

GASTON AND PORTER agreed that one of the most rewarding aspects of receiving the Purpose Prize was traveling to California to meet other service-minded winners and finalists and to learn about “the amazing work” that other philanthropists 60 years and older are doing across the country. The group of participants discussed various slogans for the Purpose Prize, including “60 years of experience is a terrible thing to waste.”

“Our award was given to us by Sidney Portier no less. I told them, ‘You can put me in a home now,’” said Gaston with a laugh.

Gaston and Porter hope to use the award money to make the Sister Circles self-sustaining. Those who cannot afford the support groups could receive grant money to participate.

“We intend to use our money to expand our circles to work with more women and to start a trainer institute,” said Porter. “We’re also going to expand the circles to include Caucasian, Latino, Asian and Native American sisters. So many of the issues that we are trying to grapple with are the same issues that women everywhere have. Especially in that age group, they’re trying to take care of everybody.”

Gaston said that receiving the Purpose Prize was a powerful affirmation of their work.

“We empower women through the circles to take care of their health and their lives,” she said. “Women tell us, ‘These circles have saved my life.’

“Not only do we feel blessed and privileged to be able to do this, but now with the Purpose Prize we have an outstanding endorsement … saying this is important work.”