The first time Charise Stephens worked up the motivation to jog with the Middle Georgia Black Girls RUN! group a few years ago, she was the last person to cross the finish line at the end of the run.
Stephens valued fitness in the past. She danced as a teenager and tumbled her way through college on a cheerleading scholarship at Georgia College & State University.
But as she aged, the Macon mother of two said it got harder to stay fit.
Then, Stephens decided to take her health into her own hands. She hit the ground running, literally.
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“I went from the last to the first, and they really helped me with my fitness journey,” she said.
Now Stephens wants to empower people throughout Macon and the state of Georgia to lead healthy lives. Starting Monday, she’ll oversee the fifth-annual Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival, and she hopes the week of wellness-related events ending Sept. 9 will inspire others to invest in their own health.
Georgia lands close to the bottom of the list on multiple national health rankings. The state comes in 41st on America’s Health Rankings’ “Healthiest States” list, 42nd on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best States for Health Care” list and 42nd on WalletHub’s roundup of “States with Best Health Care Systems.”
Georgia exceeds the national average for multiple types of poor health outcomes and unhealthy behaviors, according to America’s Health Rankings. The state has disproportionately high rates of both maternal and infant mortality, as well as premature deaths.
In addition, 31.4 percent of adults in the state are obese, 29.4 percent are physically inactive and 17.9 percent smoke. Driving through Macon, it can feel like there’s a dialysis center on every corner.
Stephens’s own mother died in her 40’s after years of dialysis treatment. A friend of hers just had a stroke a few days ago at the age of 48. She’s watched her neighbors suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic conditions over the years, and she wants to take action to promote healthy living.
“I want to see more dialysis centers close,” she said. “Not anything against business. But if we can see a reduction of dialysis centers, more people active, more people coming to our community for training and they see us as a healthy community, those are the types of things we want to see.”
Stephens first started toying with the idea of a wellness and fitness festival in 2013. In a city known for its music, food and seasonal festivals, an annual celebration of health seemed like the perfect way to promote well-being in Macon.
But Stephens knew it wouldn’t be as easy to convince people to run in a 5K race as it might be to get them to a Bragg Jam concert.
“This is not like, you know, beer and everybody turning up,” she said, adding, “It’s gonna be a challenge, but we’re working on that.”
The Georgia Wellness and Fitness Fitness officially launched in October 2014, and it’s grown dramatically in the years since. It’s the only week-long festival of its kind.
Stephens said she didn’t want to duplicate programs already happening in the area. Instead, she and her board members decided to partner with community organizations and incorporate local events into the schedule, like the Macon Labor Day Road Race.
“We don’t want to recreate the wheel,” she said. “So we do have some signature events that only the Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival put on, but the beauty about our festival is that we incorporate community partners who need to get the word out about what they do and then highlight some existing community events.”
The festival now has more than two dozen sponsors and community partners, including United Way of Central Georgia, the Tubman African American Museum and the Georgia Department of Public Health. And since its inception, the Macon-based initiative has expanded to other cities throughout the state, including Warner Robins, Atlanta and Columbus.
Activities range from fun runs and paddle board yoga to a workplace wellness talk and a hip hop showcase. And the festival emphasizes accessibility for all. Though some affiliated events cost money, all but one of the signature events hosted by the Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival are free. Event details can be found at www.gafitfest.com.
“Fitness is something that no matter how much money you have or where you come from, whatever religion, it’s a common thing that we can all share in,” Stephens said.
Her motivation to create the festival was partially self-serving — she wanted to get healthier, so she could live longer for her kids. But she also wanted to make the community healthier.
“I do want this community to be a whole lot better for my kids. I’m a little selfish in that way,” she said, adding, “I want to leave this better than, you know, than I had it.”
And Stephens said a healthier community could have long-term benefits. She and the festival’s board are working on a master plan to increase wellness in Macon, and she thinks it can improve health outcomes, cut down health care costs and spur economic investment.
“Companies are looking at not only schools and trainings and things,” she said. “They do look at quality of life, and if we can show that our citizens have a good quality of life, it’s gonna bode well for all of us.”
As part of the festival’s mission to help Macon and Georgia residents “live longer and live stronger,” the organization has started to host events beyond week-long festival.
“Throughout the year, we do small events like jump-roping, biking, we do a couple of walks, 5K and we utilize the parks,” said Bob Fickling, chairman of the festival’s board.
He said the goal is to get people involved and increase awareness of the Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival year-round. But during the festival, fitness amateurs can take their first steps toward a healthier lifestyle.
“When you leave, when the festival ends on the ninth,” Stephens said, “you have contacts and tools that you can continue your fitness journey.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.