The following story was submitted by Port Chester Patch blogger and Port Chester resident Jennifer Fay.
Tipping the scales at over four hundred pounds back in 2011, West Virginia native, Melisa Ferrell reached her breaking point. Kevin, her husband, was also in the same boat- both battling obesity, yet victory was no where in sight.
In 2011, roughly when this inspirational group started, West Virginia was rated as the third most obese state in the country, and presently doesnʼt show any signs of improvement. According to the CDC, 2011 showed a rate of 32.4% of the adult population in West Virginia to be obese. If these rates were to steadily continue, by 2030, West Virginia could reach 60.2% of adults to be obese. Poverty could play a major role in this as well. With many big name corporations and franchises focused in major cities, the pay is still at a minimum wage. Employment is even more scarce as you travel outwards towards the more mountainous regions (West Virginia is smack in the Appalachian Mountains). In this area is where you will find what New Yorkers and other major city dwellers call, “country folk.” Melisa herself, dubbed her small town of Alkol as “the sticks.” Coal mining is a primary source of revenue but, wages are still on the lower side. Statistics show that lower income families show a higher rate of obesity that starts at the preschool age. West Virginia's rate of obesity in preschoolers was 14 percent in 2011, and has shown no signs of decrease in 2013. Preschoolers who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than other children to be heavy as adults, which means greater risks of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, diabetes, asthma and even mental health problems. This is what I would call a deadly cycle.
Melisa came to her own realization of this deadly cycle when she saw her son, RJ potentially going down the same path. “Kevin is already a diabetic. I donʼt want this for him (RJ). I need to be an example. Every parent should be an example,” Melisa stated. Knowing that physical activity would be a struggle, she decided to make the best out of it and set small goals for herself. The first goal, to be able to walk to the end of the driveway and back. In making this new lifestyle change, Melisa inspired others to do the same. This group of walkers had a “come one, come all,” motto. What started off as a one, quickly increased to double digits in this tiny rural West Virginia town. All who had their personal battles with obesity as well.
The group, known back then as the Pound Punchers, caught the attention of the Oprah Winfrey Network, specifically their docu-series Our America with Lisa Ling. The show focused on obesity and the Pound Punchers doing their part to fight back by something so simple as walking. Like I said before, the start of the walk would be to the mailbox and back. As stamina got higher, the next mini goal was to the post office. That, turned into one full mile. One mile turned into two, which turned into three...
The Pound Punchers committed themselves to walking. The goal of a mailbox was almost laughable to them when they were walking four miles in the morning, and four miles in the evening. A total of eight miles a day was something the group never thoughtwas possible, but no one could deny the five hundred and fifty-five pound weight loss total within the group. They celebrated by releasing five hundred and fifty five balloons which was shown on the show. One balloon for each pound lost.
Fast forward to 2013...
My husband Brian and I, fitness instructors at the Ruth Elizabeth Dance Studio in Port Chester, NY, are constantly looking for opportunities to help others with their personal fitness and nutrition goals. Itʼs what we love to do.
Brian, home on his lunch break, turned on the TV and stumbled upon this show that we never heard of, on a channel that we never watched. The title hinted that this was some sort of documentary show. I love documentaries. It was on obesity. How appropriate, I thought.
At that moment, we were introduced to a group of people. Yes, they were obese. Morbidly so. But what Brian and I saw was inspiration. Here was a group of people from Nowheresville, America, doing something for themselves, their families, and their tight knit community. Their surroundings looked like the woods. Rural would be putting it lightly. I deduced it was a low income community, and there wasnʼt anything that proved otherwise. It was no matter to them though. They walked in whatever clothes and shoes they had on that day- just as long as they walked. They even worked out to some Richard Simmons VHS tapes. Yes, tapes. They found some in a dollar bin or ebay, I canʼt remember which. Not caring whether they were having a good hair day, or saying the right thing, they put themselves out there. Revealing their embarrassments, disgusts, and fears, theyʼre still on that screen like, ʻHey! Yes, weʼre really overweight, and go against the norm of what you see on TV, but look at what weʼre doing,ʼ for all of America to see. Needless to say, Brian and I were put to shame, as we watched them on our forty seven inch flat screen TV while enjoying some posh grilled chicken sandwiches. All within thirty minutes.
Breaking the profound silence of shame was Brian. “We need to help them. Look at what they accomplished already with just walking and Richard Simmons. Imagine what they could achieve with us supporting them!” Immediately, I got on the computer and googled away. What I found was the group, newly named the Mud River Pound Punchers with pictures of a ceremony, naming part of a highway after them recognizing their success.
After locating an email address through their Facebook page, I went to town. I was almost star struck when I heard back from Melisa. I mean, I just saw her on TV and it their story is just so incredible. Brian and I knew what we wanted to do. We were about to plan a trip to Alkol and experience the country life.
Best decision ever.
As it turned out, they were walking but it slowed down, and wanted to get back on a exercise regimen. Thatʼs where Brian and I came to play, and where the New-Virginia Pound Punchers started (Get it? New York+ West Virginia = New Virginia). With a tremendous and generous donation from our personal mentors and friends, Kevin and Milan Jensen, The NVPP was able to get a copy of a much more current at home work out program (as well as other various programs), and a nutritional powerhouse meal replacement, enough for a ten day jump start supply, for all fourteen members whose ages ranged from thirteen to fifty-five.
Not knowing what to expect when we started the almost ten hour drive, didnʼt hinder our outlook on the trip. Brian and I knew that this is what we love to do. This is what we want. Kevin Ferrell, Melisaʼs husband, kept checking in on us to see where we were. They were just as eager to meet their “friends from New York” as we were to meet them.
When we did, it was nothing but handshakes and hugs. Talk about southern hospitality.
Our first work out at the Duval Volunteer Fire Department was to one of the programʼs dvdʼs. Brian and I showed them modifications, and gave proper tips for form. It was tough for them I think, but their dedication trumped any negativity. Our next workout was filled with even more energy and willingness. We talked about nutrition, health, and eating habits, as well as mudding, 4x4ʼs and shooting. We started a three day No Pop Challenge for the group to wean them off the high fructose corn syrup, a major contributor to their obesity. (Pop is their word for soda)
By the end of the trip, we were considered family. Melisa was now Sissy, and Brian and I were known as Sis and Bub (big sister and big brother) to one of the girls there. Swarms of “we donʼt want you to go back,” was all we heard. They were hoping we would move to their holler. Itʼs not everyday you meet a group of people as genuinely kind and honest as these folk.
The New Virginia Pound Punchers represent a huge chunk of obese America, but in our opinion, the chunk that gets lost in the proverbial sauce, just because theyʼre tucked away in a remote area surrounded by nothing but grass and trees. I feel like itʼs a way of life for them. Processed foods, lost nutrition, empty calories, fast food chains and a sedentary state, which gets passed down by example. This is why you have eighteen year olds already on high blood pressure medication, or dancing a fine line with diabetes. No one is there to show them anything else. In our travels within West Virginia, I can name all of the fast food, pizza and restaurant franchises, all located within a few miles from each other (hell, our hotel shared a parking lot with Wendyʼs), yet Brian and I canʼt recall seeing one gym or fitness related business. Thatʼs how serious it is. And itʼs our goal to stop the cycle in hopes that the NVPP will inspire everyone from the celebrities in the limelight, to the person in “No Manʼs Land” who has a one hour commute to the grocery store, and everyone in between. We want to get to the root cause, and bring a winning formula to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
Brian and I formed a “Bottles for Pounds” fundraiser for the group. We started at the Ruth Elizabeth Dance Studio in Port Chester, Ny, where Brian and I teach classes. They were the main contributor for the empty water bottles and jump started this idea. Soon enough, we ventured out and asked local businesses in our area if they would be interested in doing the same, donating the bottles in order for them to be recycled and put in a fund to raise money towards nutrition and fitness programs for the NVPP, being that they are all in the lower income demographic. Plus, there are no gyms anyway, even if they could afford it. And if they could, most donʼt have cars, and there is no bus route. Itʼs an uphill battle for them. They want to do better for themselves but resources are limited. Why canʼt they get the best at home workout programs? Why canʼt they get that support? Why canʼt they have the proper nutrition to lead healthier lives for themselves and their families? Weʼre hoping to show people, that there are others, like Brian and I, that see their efforts to get healthy and change their lives amidst all these cards stacked against them. Weʼre here to help see them through it, to show them itʼs possible. For them, for anyone. We want to help in any way we can and “Bottles for Pounds” is where weʼre starting. The NVPP are also getting involved in the fundraising by setting up car washes, reaching out to their local representatives, radio stations, etc. Theyʼre taking this opportunity and using it to spread their message to the community, and in the near future, neighboring counties. Our goal is state wide. West Virginia doesnʼt have to be the third most obese state in the nation.
Our next trip, to be taken in the beginning of September, and another in late October (when Our America will be filming a follow up show) is something weʼre definitely looking forward to. By then, we will have an even more inspirational story to tell. We have our workouts planned out, and in the interim, Brian and I stay on top of them with their workout schedule and different “food challenges.” They love it and are sticking to it six days a week. Thatʼs more than I can say for many people. This is just the beginning for the New-Virginia Pound Punchers. They constantly tell us how thankful they are for our support, but no thanks are needed. A home cooked meal and a hug will suffice.
We are family, after all.
*A little history lesson: The term “redneck” comes from the West Virginia Coal Miners March or the Battle of Blair Mountain when coal miners wore red bandanas around their necks to identify themselves as seeking the opportunity to unionize.