Marie and Rita

YMCA Center for Community Impact

On a warm summer afternoon at the New Tacoma Senior Apartments in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, a large group is gathering in the community kitchen for a celebration. A buffet of soup, salad, fruits, and vegetables is laid out and banners reading ‘Congrats, Grad!’ adorn the walls. However, these graduates aren’t moving on from high school or college; they’re graduates of the YMCA Diabetes Prevention Program.

Marie Harris is one of the graduates of the program, which helps participants reduce their risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Marie has struggled with her weight since she was a child and spent much of her adult life avoiding her body image issues. When she first heard that the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties was going to run the Diabetes Prevention Program for residents of the apartments, she knew that she needed to sign up and face her fears.

“When I came to the first class, I was nervous. I knew diabetes was in my family. My uncle was a diabetic, but nobody told me that at the time,” Marie says. “So, there was diabetes in the family, but it was a secret nobody told.”

Rita Dawson first heard about the Diabetes Prevention Program in her church when someone came to speak about prediabetes, a condition that affects 86 million Americans – but only one-in-10 know they have it. Rita knew that she couldn’t continue to ignore her health, so she signed herself up. Together, the group of four women spent a year learning strategies for healthier eating, increasing physical activity, and losing weight to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes.

“I have learned so much. I’ve learned how to read labels and see what’s in an item – how much sodium am I getting? How much sugar is in a serving? Are there saturated fats in this?” Rita says. “I’ve increased my exercise. I’ve learned so much about how to track what I’m eating. I’ve been able to lower my blood pressure and able to lower my cholesterol. I would eat a fried chicken in a minute, but now I bake, I broil, I grill, I steam, I make sure I eat fruits during the day, eat vegetables during the day, I drink a lot of water. So, I really have changed my whole outlook.”


For Marie, the practice of keeping a food journal revealed a connection between her emotional state and her eating habits.

“When the stress is in my life, I have a tendency to eat. And I’m eating and not even sometimes aware of it. I may be eating because I’m angry, or I’m sad, or when I’m kind of depressed and I might not even be in touch with that. And when I do that, I eat fast. I inhale it,” Marie says. “When you’re having a problem emotionally, it affects you physically, [but] I’ve learned that if I mess up tomorrow, it’s okay. I can move on to the next day and continue to survive. No, not survive – thrive!”

At the graduation ceremony, Rita, Marie, and their classmates discuss how the program has impacted their lives, exchange gifts with each other, and receive certificates from Susan Buell, Association Director of Adult Healthy Lifestyles and Chronic Disease, who led the class and reminds them that the strategies they learned can still be applied every day after the official end of the program.

“This isn’t a diet,” Susan says. “Dieting is about what you can’t have. Lifestyle health is about what you can have in moderation and balance. Unlike a diet, when this program ends, lifestyle health goes on.”

As the group gets in line for lunch, Rita and Marie are busy examining the food, actively putting their knowledge of portion size, reducing fat, and discovering healthy options to work. They both reflect on how the program has not only helped their physical health, but also their sense of confidence and overall well-being.

“I feel good,” Rita says. “I feel good that I can get up, exercise and walk my mile or two miles and get my day going and now I feel incomplete if I don’t do those things. I never would’ve said this before this class, but I am really grateful for exercise, the way I cook now, the food I take it – I’m aware of all of that now and it’s made a big difference.”

“This is wonderful, because I’m preventing instead of waiting until it’s here,” Marie says. “I feel better about my body image. I’m more confident. This program has saved my life.”

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