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Men Making a Difference: Brian Jolles

The first time Brian Jolles was confronted with a family member’s grave health issue was 20 years ago when his oldest son, Matthew, was born with a rare, life-threatening condition.

If Jolles, president of Jolles Insurance, could have looked into the not-too-distant future, he would have learned then that he would soon face the mortality of a loved one, not once but twice more.

In the end, after coping with his son’s needs and the deaths of his father and oldest brother at young ages, Jolles was inspired to create We Promote Health, a nonprofit organization that is committed to building a healthier county by offering an array of free fitness programming in the schools, the community and the workplace.

But back in 1991, it was a long and bumpy road for Jolles, now 53, and his wife, Lisa, to get their firstborn on the path to recovery. Initially told that Matt’s case wasn’t especially rare and could be surgically corrected, the Woodstock couple soon learned that their infant son fell into the 3 percent of infants who required intensive intervention.

“My knees buckled when I heard this news,” Jolles recalled. Yet, the couple managed to conquer that harrowing challenge together and soon had another son, Phillip, now 15.

Just several years later, Jolles’ father and oldest brother were snatched from him at young ages, passing away almost exactly a year apart. His father, Mike, died in 1998 at age 63 following triple bypass heart surgery, after coping with heart problems for more than a decade.

“He’d had a dozen strokes after years of smoking, not eating healthy and limited physical activity,” he said. “His death is part of the reason I do what I do, and I wonder if he’d still be alive if he’d lived a healthy lifestyle.”

His brother Marty, also a business owner, died next at age 44 in 1999 from an inoperable brain tumor, and is buried next to their father. Marty handled his tragic fate with good humor, the insurance agent said.

Fast-forward to 2005, when Jolles had an epiphany.

He’d been moved by his father’s lifestyle choices and his brother’s early demise to remake his eating and exercise habits a decade ago and had shed 43 of his 200-plus pounds and drastically lowered his cholesterol in the process. Why not help others achieve change by involving local organizations and experts in the cause?

So, six years ago, Jolles founded We Promote Health, “to focus on ending the obesity epidemic and promote wellness in the schools, workplace and community,” he explained.

With his insurance background, he already knew that half of health care claims could be controlled with changes to individuals’ nutrition and physical activity. He had also learned from firsthand experience that when it comes to overhauling your lifestyle, most people can’t do it alone.

“The social aspect is a necessary component in order to make this work,” he stressed. “We need to be able to depend on one another.”

Brenda von Rautenkranz, a local TV show host and fitness trainer who volunteers her time for We Promote Health, said Jolles has the “great energy” needed to get people on board.

“Brian’s an idea guy, and we rally people well together,” she said. “He believes in people, and that’s contagious. He’ll do whatever it takes to get people to make changes.”

We Promote Health, which has already touched the lives of hundreds of participants, offers an array of programs that are explained in greater detail at wepromotehealth.org.

Get Active Howard County, which began as a 10-week boot camp that kicks off in March, is transitioning into a free  year-round activity for all fitness levels held on Saturday mornings. Some 400 people have taken part in the boot camp, which also allows people to set up teams for built-in support.

We Promote Health will continue to help coordinate Healthy Howard Day, a comprehensive health fair that attracts thousands of participants each year on the first Sunday in June. This activity supports the county’s Healthy Howard initiative.

The organization makes available We Can, a school-based program developed by the National Institutes of Health to assist families with kids ages 8 to 13 in integrating physical activity, nutrition and reduced screen time into their daily lives.  

And Jolles’ latest creation is the Healthy Lifestyle Challenge, a 10-week game that revolves around a weekly electronic newsletter and quiz. With 200 participants, this program’s goal is to stimulate healthy habits by creating friendly competition and rewarding successes with small prizes.  

Jolles practices what he preaches by cooking-to-order a healthy breakfast every Friday for his seven-member staff, which includes his wife, Lisa, the company’s vice president. Omelets with cholesterol-free egg substitute, turkey bacon and whole-wheat toast constituted a recent menu. The company president has been manning the griddle for four years now and counting.

“These programs are something everyone can build on,” Jolles said. “I hope people will see their value and join us.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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