CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last March, eight Mud River Volunteer Fire Department Pound Punchers had lost 416 pounds in seven months. They did it by pounding country roads, exercising in the fire hall and laughing a lot, five days a week, with little money and no gym, track or grocery store within easy reach.
"I guess our secret is the word 'fun,'" Melisa Ferrell said. "We enjoy each other and encourage each other. When one of us gets discouraged, the others pick that person up."
By June, they had lost 555 pounds. They released 555 helium balloons to celebrate.
As the balloons floated over the mountain, a New York camera crew filmed their group hug. The camera crew had been following them around for two days, sent by the show "Our America," on the Oprah Winfrey Network. After reading about the women in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, "Our America" contacted them for an episode about parents who want to help their kids lose weight.
The crew arrived in two rental cars jam-packed with camera and sound equipment to film the parents and kids. They filmed them walking in sunshine and pouring rain, eating and playing basketball. Dancing to eBay tapes, blowing up the balloons.
They filmed the green firehouse chalkboard with everybody's weight loss on it: Annie 101 pounds, Melisa 123 pounds, Karen 63 pounds. And so on.
The result: On Tuesday night, "Our America, with Lisa Ling" will feature the Pound Punchers in an episode about parents' role in child obesity. "They are in this show because we're in the midst of a devastating epidemic of obesity, and they are showing us something inspiring, something that's working," Ling said Friday.
"They have a lot to teach the whole country," she said. "To tell the truth, we kind of fell in love with them," she said. "Our whole crew did. We're in awe of them. They are such earnest people with such sincere motivations, and they're so incredibly collaborative in their efforts to lose weight. They work together so well.
"Fundamentally, this episode is about the need for parents to step in and be role models for their kids, and the Mud River parents are great role models for their kids," Ling said.
The Pound Punchers have shed more than 750 pounds now. They're aiming for 1,000 by June.
But their role-modeling is about more than losing weight, Toney said. "It's about the community, too." In December, for instance, she and fellow firefighters drove from hollow to hollow every day for a week, delivering food and water to home after home, after Superstorm Sandy knocked out the power for a week.
"When our community needs us, we're there," said Pound Puncher and firefighter Karen Lawson. They're teaching the kids to have the same attitude. When the fire truck stopped at each house, her 15-year-old daughter Ashley, Melisa's 19-year-old son, R.J., and other teenagers jumped off the back of the truck to deliver food and water.
Each day now, Ashley Lawson gets off the school bus at the fire hall and works out with the Pound Punchers after school. She's lost about 30 pounds, so far. "Two years ago, I wouldn't take off my hoodie, even when it was hot, because I didn't want people looking at me," she said, "but we laugh a lot at the fire hall and, I don't know, it's making a difference."
Her friends are starting to come to work out, too. "The teenagers keep us laughing," Karen Lawson, Ashley's mother, said. "They'll say anything." The younger kids are quick to join their parents for a walk after school. The adults have taught them dance routines they can do together. "We're like a big family," said James Toney, Annie Toney's 11-year-old son.
"The Mud River adults are not only saving their own lives, they're saving their kids' lives too," Ling said. "They see that their own weight problem affects their children, and they've found they can change that."