One by one, they express how they feel: Happy, smarter, peaceful, grateful, rested, relaxed, determined, refreshed. Better.
They’ve all made progress over the past few weeks addressing issues that they’ve neglected for far too long — their health, their homes, their stress.
That’s the goal of the Prime Time Sister Circles, a 12-week program focused on helping African American women in midlife improve their nutrition and fitness, and deal with stress. And just as important, participants say, the Sister Circles provides them with emotional and spiritual support akin to a long, tight hug.
“I’m at a turning point where I’m actually beginning the next chapter of my life,” says Allison Smith, an engineering technician and single mother who recently turned 40. “I’m pulling a lot from the different sisters — how they handle stress and their experiences. And in learning from others, I’m learning how to deal with my own.”
The Prime Time Sister Circles are the brainchild of Marilyn Gaston, 73, a former assistant surgeon general and Gayle Porter, 66, a clinical psychologist. The two teamed up to write “Prime Time: The African American Woman’s Complete Guide to Midlife Health and Wellness.” The book, which came out in 2001, offers black women guidelines to deal with issues that often arise in middle age.
“We wanted to have a book that would give women in midlife some strategies because we know their blood pressure’s starting to go up and their blood sugar’s going up and weight’s going up and they want to know what to do about it,” says Gaston.
One of the key pieces of advice in the book was to form Prime Time Sister Circles. The doctors learned through focus groups that black women wanted to be in a supportive environment where they could give and receive. They were also clear about what they didn’t want.
“They said, ‘We don’t want a 90-pound, perky 20-year-old telling us about fitness because she is not going to understand what our 55-year-old body is going through,’ ” recalled Porter.
The Prime Time Sister Circles meetings are held in churches, libraries, recreational centers and bookstores. They’re free, thanks to grants from institutions including the Ford and Kellogg foundations, the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and the District’s Department of Health.
That night at the Walter Reed Community Center in Arlington, after a dinner of couscous with fish, mixed vegetables, fruit and bottled water, the women break into small groups and discuss the evening’s topics among themselves. This is where the women get to lay bare their burdens: neglectful spouses, rebellious children, aging parents, a family loss, downsizing at the job. They talk about the nitty-gritty of their lives. It is a safe space.