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5,000 Prince Hall Shriners descend on Baltimore this week, bearing message of diabetes prevention

Under hazy skies, the Prince Hall Shriners traded in their red fezzes for T-shirts, shorts and sneakers for a walk to raise awareness and money for diabetes research at Morgan State University’s campus Saturday.

The walk kicked off the historically African-American fraternity’s annual national convention, held in Baltimore this year. The week-long event includes volunteering efforts, a school supplies giveaway and a parade Wednesday down Pratt Street.

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The head of the 126-year-old organization, Charles W. Davenport, known as the Imperial Potentate, said the organization has chapters across the United States and in 17 other countries that lead volunteering efforts in their communities. About 5,000 men and women had registered for the Baltimore conference, he said.

“We’re one of the [fraternal organizations] that is always doing something,” he said.

The Prince Hall Shriners have focused their national efforts on diabetes awareness, prevention and research, he said. He pointed out that the disease heavily affects the African-American community. According to the National Institutes of Health, black adults are almost twice as likely as white adults to develop type 2 diabetes, and the disparity has been increasing over the past three decades.

The Prince Hall Shriners’ National Diabetes Initiative has set a goal to raise $1 million annually for 10 years for the American Diabetes Association, said Otis W. Kirksey, director of the Initiative. The Shriners met the first $1 million fundraising goal last year, he said. The money supports research and outreach, with a focus in African-American and Hispanic communities.

Kirksey, a pharmacist, said while diabetes is a slow-developing disease, many people are unaware they have it. He said if people are diagnosed early and make lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and improving their diet, they can greatly reduce their risk.

In addition to raising research money, the Shriners have a campaign to urge those who might be at risk for diabetes to undergo early risk assessment. Often, Kirksey said, those in underserved communities are at the most risk because they might not have access to medical care. These communities are also more likely to be affected by food deserts and lack other resources for a healthier lifestyle, he said.

“We’re extremely excited to be here and do the work in the community,” he said.

Members of the local Baltimore chapter, Jerusalem Temple 4, said they were happy to welcome their brothers and sisters to their home city.

Jeff Flight, who holds the Oriental Guide position at the Baltimore temple and is responsible for managing day-to-day tasks, said he’s already given tutorials on how to pick blue crabs to Shriners from out of town.

On Wednesday, as part of the convention, Shriners will hand out school supplies — more than 500 backpacks — to children at an event at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Upton. The Shriners’ clowns and dune buggies will also be at the giveaway event.

On Saturday, about 600 participants, including members and non-members, registered for the 5K walk from Morgan’s University Student Center, around Lake Montebello and back despite the heat.

“It was a little too hot,” said Edwina Harris, a member of the Mecca 2 Court in Washington, D.C. (Temples are for the male members, and courts are the women’s chapters.)

But Harris said she looks forward to the convention, which is held in a different city each year.

“We get to see people we don’t normally get to see,” she said. At each convention, she said, she will meet new members from all over the country. “We make new friends each year,” she said.

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Harris said she’s been a member for 30 years and continues to enjoy the relationships and the positive impact on her community.

“You meet people. You feel good about the things you do,” she said. “You get a lot of gratitude.”

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