Last year, Debra Wells got a wake-up call in the form of congestive heart failure.
At 44, the Waukegan resident's weight had crept up to more than 400 pounds. After spending weeks in intensive care, then being sent home with an oxygen tank, Wells said to herself, "I've got to do something."
So she joined a "Biggest Loser" challenge at her church, Jesus Name Apostolic in Waukegan.
For years, the church had partnered with the Family First Center of Lake County, a nonprofit outreach agency that offers free community health and social services. But when the partnership stepped up its efforts last May by opening a free fitness center near the church, Wells stepped it up too.
Now she can be found working out there nearly every day. And her pastor, the Rev. John Caples, can be found there several times a week leading step aerobics classes. Since the fitness center opened, it has served more than 6,000 people, church officials said.
As it launches its own communitywide initiative to fight obesity, the Lake County Health Department hopes to see more stories like this.
At a recent community forum at College of Lake County focusing on obesity prevention, presenters from numerous county agencies and groups — from the Park District to day care centers — shared information about programs available around the region.
The forum "was a very powerful first step of working with the community in identifying and solving a health problem," said Mark Pfister, director of population health services for the Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center. "Clearly, obesity is a health issue that our community wants to solve."
Pfister said the hope of the forum is that community members will continue to share ideas and programs and create a regional collaborative effort addressing obesity from which all 715,000 Lake County residents can benefit.
It's one of many initiatives both locally and nationally, including first lady Michelle Obama's year-old "Let's Move" campaign, that strive to take a community-based approached to fighting obesity and improving health. Holy Family Medical Center in Des Plaines also kicked off a similar initiative last month called "Let's Move Our Numbers!" that focuses on lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body-mass index in the Des Plaines area.
Toby Smithson, dietician with the Lake County Health Department and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, said county statistics "mimic the national numbers, which draws the concern to do something as a county."
According to a study published in November, nearly 20 percent of Lake County residents ages 18 to 24 fall in the obese category, said Dr. Sara Parvinian, a Gurnee pediatrician.
"The severe implications of childhood obesity (are) known by physicians, and not just pediatricians, since more than 80 percent of obese children will continue their trend well into adulthood," she said.
Those implications don't just affect a person's health, she noted, but also his or her self-esteem. Children who are overweight often are targets of bullying, Parvinian said.
Becky Weitzel, breastfeeding coordinator and county Health Department senior dietician, said communitywide programs could help instill good food habits as early as infancy. That, she said, should begin with more mom- and baby-friendly hospitals educating and supporting moms in breastfeeding.
A baby who is breastfed learns early on how to monitor its food intake and listen to its own hunger signals, as opposed to babies who are bottle-fed, where a caretaker is in control of how much they take, Weitzel said.
Carol Sternal, director of the Cherished Children Early Education Center in Mundelein, shared how the center helps children learn to make better food choices by making gardening a regular activity.
About three years ago, her charges began planting an assortment of herbs, vegetables and fruits in small plastic swimming pools. In May, the school built two raised garden beds, and has received a grant from the Lake County Farm Bureau for a third.
"It's all about growing healthy children," Sternal said. "We wanted to give them good nutrition habits from the beginning."
She said the children, up to 12 years old, seed, plant, water, weed and harvest their gardens. They regularly eat their own homegrown fruits and vegetables with lunches and at snack time. Sternal believes the activity has even improved the attention span of children who have troubling concentrating on a single task.
And parents benefit, too, Sternal said. At the end of the day they often put out the extras for families to take home.
"We are trying to instill healthy eating habits so we don't have another generation who looks to (fast food) for a quick fix," Sternal said. "When it is time to eat (fruits and vegetables), they don't even think about rejecting it because they put so much into it."
Moving forward, county officials plan more meetings to network and gather and share ideas. Eventually, visitors to the Health Department's website, lakecountyil.gov/health, will be able to access all programs within the partnership.
County officials also are developing surveys for schools to use to establish a baseline for monitoring over time whether the efforts are making an impact.
As for Debra Wells, since last year's medical crisis, she sleeps better and has lowered her blood pressure. She reports losing 65 pounds so far, for which she was treated to a shopping spree with her pastor's wife and then featured in a church fashion show.
Her goal for this year is to lose another 60 pounds, then 60 pounds each year after until she reaches her goal weight of 180. She said she is continually encouraged by church members and her community.
"It's been a blessing," she said.