Pound Punchers: 1 year, 555 pounds, 555 balloons
ALKOL, W.Va. -- Late Friday afternoon, deep in rural Lincoln County, inside the Mud River Volunteer Fire Department, 26 adults and children were furiously blowing up and tying off 555 helium balloons, praying the rain would stop.
For months, they had looked forward to sending balloons up in the air to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Mud River Pound Punchers, one balloon for every pound they have lost.
Faced with diabetes and heart problems, six determined Lincoln countians -- all associated with the Mud River VFD -- have walked the back roads together each morning for a year, exercising and dancing in the fire hall in the evenings.
"We wanted to celebrate with our kids in a way they would remember," said Melisa Ferrell, who has lost 123 pounds. "We got our hearts set on balloons. Then it rained."
In midafternoon, they floated a test balloon in the rain, to see what would happen. It sank right back down to earth. "We went on faith that it would quit raining long enough for us to get these balloons in the air," she said.
They have a lot to celebrate. In the first eight months, the original six lost an average of 71 pounds apiece. By June 1, they had 11 regular walkers, 40 "sometimes" members and 555 pounds lost.
In March, they were featured in a Gazette-Mail article. A few weeks later, the Lincoln County Commission gave them $1,200 to buy sturdy exercise equipment for their fire hall to replace the flimsy ab-loungers they had at the VFD. "We went to the commission meeting, showed the [Gazette-Mail] article, and asked if they could help us get some real equipment," Ferrell said.
At about the same time, Marshall University contacted them, offering to come to the fire hall and teach a class on healthy eating and other ways to prevent and control diseases like diabetes. "That's been great," she said.
Then in April, they heard from a New York television production company interested in filming them for a national show about people who are successfully attacking obesity.
On Friday, that production company was filming at the fire hall. They filmed the Pound Punchers blowing up multicolored balloons while rain drummed on the roof. They filmed the kids running back and forth with balloons on strings, tying them down. At about 4, it stopped raining. By 4:30, the sun came out. Soon after 5, two generations of Pound Punchers burst out of the fire hall, holding hundreds of multi-colored helium-filled balloons on strings.
In an adjacent field, they stood in a tight circle, holding the balloons aloft. After a prayer, they opened their hands, and 555 balloons went floating up. Everyone cheered, and Melisa Ferrell and several others burst out crying. They piled into a group hug, laughing and crying, while the film crew circled them.
The balloons floated up past the treeline, above the firehouse, then beyond the steep mountains.
"I can't explain how good it feels to see them float away," Annie Toney said, wiping away tears. She has lost 101 pounds now and is completely off her blood pressure medication. "It's been a lot of walking. I never in this world thought I could do that," she said.
"We have a lot to be thankful for," Kevin Ferrell said. A year ago, he was taking seven to nine shots of insulin a day. Now he takes two.
Sen. Ron Stollings, a doctor and chairman of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, made a short speech. "If we could get communities all over West Virginia to do what you're doing, this state would be in much better shape," he told them.
"We need to find a way to spread this statewide."
Thinking about healthy food
The Pound Punchers signed an agreement not to tell the name of the national show that came to film them. The Gazette-Mail agreed to honor their agreement. The March Gazette-Mail story led them to the Pound Punchers.
The production company filmed the Pound Puncher kids playing ball and walking with their mothers in the rain. They also filmed the doughnuts and cakes in the fire hall and honey buns and candy bars in the fire hall vending machine.
"We're kind of in transition, where food's concerned," Toney said, grinning and shrugging. "We've come a long way with exercise, but several of us have hit a plateau, so we know it's time to think about what we eat, too, if we want to keep losing."
They are taking steps in that direction. Thursday, the production company filmed the Pound Punchers and other fire department members taking the nutrition class at the fire hall, taught by Marshall University's Sally Hurst.
"We want to teach these classes in fire halls, churches and senior centers, and they're a perfect group," Hurst said. "Good on physical activity and just starting to think seriously about nutrition."
During the class, they listed obstacles to healthy diet: the cost, a junk food habit and the fact that no store within a half-hour's drive sells healthy food such as dried beans, brown rice, fresh vegetables or fish.
They brainstormed things they could do: raise gardens, can food, carpool to the grocery to save money. "We could set up a little farmers market," Toney said.
The film crew recorded the class. They filmed them cutting up tomatoes for lunch. They filmed Kevin Ferrell injecting his insulin. They interviewed them for hours.
"It's sort of scary to have people following you with cameras for two days," Melisa Ferrell said Friday. "If this show helps people, I'll be happy, but I'll be glad too when things get back to normal."
Step by step, they're improving
The film crew left Friday evening. "We'll have to wait to see what they make of us," Ferrell said. Meanwhile, "we'll just keep doing what we do."
They are better equipped to do what they do, now that the Mud River VFD has a small, first-class gym. "It's there for anybody in the community who wants to use it," Toney said.
In early May, Commissioners Thomas Ramey and Dr. Charles Vance came to the gym opening.
"So many West Virginia areas have lost their schools, so sometimes fire departments become the center of the communities," Ramey said. "These exercise machines will be another way for this community to come together in a healthy way."
Parks and Recreation gave the fire department money to buy two basketball nets for the kids.
"It's such a positive thing for kids to see their parents enjoy exercising and keeping at it," Vance said. "They're learning healthy habits.
"We've got to address childhood obesity, and there's no better way to do it than in families." He likes the nutrition class. "Step by step, they're gradually improving their diet and, with the exercise, achieving things they wouldn't have achieved otherwise.
"We have a big problem with diabetes and hypertension in the county, and these people are addressing it right here, without having to spend a lot of money. That's impressive."
Friday, Melisa and Kevin didn't get home until late. They live in a tornado-damaged house. When it rains, they move pots from place to place to catch the leaks. "We're back to reality," she said. "But today, we're forgetting our problems. Today we're celebrating."
Reach Kate Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1798.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.