FSU-Led Team Collaborates with Local Churches in a $2.6 Million Grant to Compare Strategies for Reducing Cardiovascular Disease Risk

Health for Hearts United team

A multi-university team of faculty and community representatives recently announced a prestigious National Institutes of Health grant to compare two strategies for implementing a church-based health program to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Led by Penny Ralston, FSU professor, dean emeritus of the College of Health and Human Sciences and director of the Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations, the $2.6 million, five-year grant will provide support for the 45-member Health for Hearts United Collaborative, a coalition of churches in Gadsden and Leon Counties.

The grant will help the team test an internal champions strategy in comparison to a professional experts strategy in training health leaders. Internal champions are church members who can effect change as transformational leaders. Professional experts are staff who work in collaboration with churches to implement programs.

Along with Ralston, the team includes co-principal investigators Kandauda Wickrama from the University of Georgia and Alice Ammerman from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In addition, collaborators include FSU professors Jeffrey Harman, health economist; Robert Hickner, exercise physiologist; and Jasminka Ilich, nutrition scientist and registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN). Consultants include Jennifer Lemacks, University of Southern Mississippi; Iris Young-Clark, Florida A&M University; and Celeste Brickler Hart M.D., medical advisor.  Community liaisons include Mother Care Network representatives Arrie Battle, one of the inaugural key advisors for the program, and Felicia Battle-Jones.

“Cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the U.S. and is a particular problem for African Americans,” Ralston said. “Health for Hearts United is a program designed to address cardiovascular disease risk from a preventive and early intervention perspective by helping churches serve as model organizations in improving diets, promoting physical activity, reducing stress, and helping congregants take charge of their health. This grant will help us test the extent to which churches themselves can design and implement programs consistent with Health for Hearts United, which has implications for broader uptake of these programs.”

Reverend Roosevelt Rogers III, pastor of Old Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Havana and chair of the Health for Hearts United Pastors’ Advisory Council, points toward the sustainable changes his church has made as a result of Health for Hearts United: “We bought a fryer at our church right before coming into the program over 13 years ago and rarely used it.” Highlighting the need to move towards healthy oils and fats, he continues, “We made a commitment at that point to be a healthy church and to not serve fried foods.” Similarly, Bishop Joseph Henderson from Celebrate New Life Tabernacle in Tallahassee, remarks on his personal health experience. “After my church came into the program, I lost 45 pounds just by changing my diet,” he said. “I was exercising but not realizing that what I ate was just as important as the physical activity.”

Sterling Dupont, former superintendent of schools in Gadsden County, member of St. James AME Church in Quincy and convener of the program’s steering committee, shares that his church has institutionalized health: “St. James teaches healthy eating by providing healthy second Sunday breakfasts, healthy repasts, and theme sponsored meals such as Children’s Day, Pastoral Team Picnics, and Fasting & Praying.” Finally, Alisha Bradley-Nelson of Greater Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee speaks to the longevity of Health for Hearts United: “Our church is one of the founding members of the program and through various changes we still hold on to the values around health. A seed of health has been planted in the church.”

Health for Hearts United, which began in 2008 as a result of two previous National Institutes of Health grant awards, is a program to mobilize churches in the local area to reduce cardiovascular risk in their congregations and local communities.  Growing out of several initiatives underway locally in the mid-2000s and using a train the trainer model, the program works with a team within each church that receives training, develops a plan, and then delivers an event to promote cardiovascular awareness.  Once completed, the health team becomes an ongoing health ministry that sustains health programming in the church.

For more information about the grant, please contact Penny Ralston at the FSU Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations, (850) 645-8110 or pralston@fsu.edu.