Walking the Walk

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Group builds community a step at a time

To Assistant Professor Mary Donnelly, DNP, MPH, ACNP-BC, ANP-BC, healthcare is all about heart. And a cardiac assessment is one of the first steps for her patients. Donnelly, who has her own family history of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes, believes that to truly serve her patients, she must also understand the heart of their neighborhood—one long-stressed by poverty, blight, racial disparity, and lack of access to health services and knowledge. So rather than just talking the talk, Donnelly is walking the walk, and welcoming all who are able to join in.

In the heart of the East Baltimore neighborhood that houses the Johns Hopkins medical complex and the neighboring Lillian D. Wald Community Nursing Center where she is site supervisor, Donnelly has assembled the Wald Walkers—a group that walks a two-mile loop twice a week. She wants to show the community the importance of maintaining good cardiovascular health, and do it in a way that is visible and real. “We have to model the behaviors ourselves. And we need to earn their trust. I want to show them that I’m a regular person who does regular things … that I’m not just hiding somewhere in my health center,” says Donnelly.

With anywhere from four to 10 walkers on a given day, Donnelly and Linda Whitner, the Wald Center’s clinic coordinator (who also walks), are proud that some in the group have shown significant health improvements. “We had one gentleman lose a great amount of weight, and we were so proud of him,” recalls Donnelly. “There was even a man who, after joining, went through rehabilitation to break an alcohol addiction.” But she says Wald Walkers is about more than just individual successes like these. “The community hasn’t always welcomed support from organizations like Hopkins, but I’d like to show them that we care and that there’s hope.”

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From left: Mary Donnelly, Jessica Savage, Linda Whitner, and Sheila Solomon

“There’s an older gentleman who lives on the corner of our route, and he’s usually sitting outside when we walk by,” says Donnelly. “We stop and say hello, and it’s about the personal connection we have with him.” Donnelly believes it’s about each opportunity to make a difference, even if it just a small group that walks.

The Walkers walk the neighborhoods, among the cars, buses, workers, and fellow pedestrians filling the streets. They realize that having a presence is important. To Donnelly, it’s also about the chance the group has to talk about common concerns or issues, and to see what’s going on around them. From carpenters building an apartment complex to students taking a break in the shade of a tree, there are invitations to walk just waiting to happen. “It’d be great to just have a passer-by join in one day,” says Donnelly. “I’m always here to exercise.”

Beyond the Wald Walkers, the Wald Center is growing fruit and vegetables at various city plots and working closely with two local residential complexes to provide fitness classes and group discussions on a variety of health topics. “We can transform the well-being of the city through the smallest of things—a group walk, an extra garden, or a smile when you pass by a stranger,” comments Donnelly. “We’re not just about improving health, but hopefully through our work, we’re transforming lives and the city around us.”

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