On a recent summer evening, a group of about 20 black women stand in a wide circle at an Arlington County community center, holding hands, sharing stories about the joys, the pain, the struggle and stress of being a black woman in midlife.

“Okay, ladies, we’re going to get started,” says Jeri Groce, who stands before the women. “Let’s form our circle. How are you feeling tonight? Give me one word.”

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.

“The health aspect is important, but this is what the circle is all about,” says Groce. “It’s about us sharing with each other.” Robinson agrees: “It’s just 120 minutes, but it’s so important.”

Expanding the circles

The first circles were held at a pair of Washington churches in 2003 — 10 women at St. Thomas Moore and 10 at People’s Congregational. Since then, the meetings have been held around the region. Nearly 3,000 women in four states and seven cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore, have participated.

The circles are kept relatively small: no more than 25 women. Participants include those who make six-figure incomes and others with more modest means. They meet for two hours, once a week over three months and often learn that more things connect than separate them.

Porter and Gaston say that it was important to reach black women in midlife, their “prime time,” because they are often the center of families and communities.

“If you can change just one midlife woman’s health behavior, you have a ripple effect,” says Gaston. “She’s going to change her whole family. She’s going to change her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. She’s going to change the church she’s going to every Sunday, her workplace, her community.”

Women ages 40 to 75 have been the target group, but the doctors say they plan to expand the program to include younger women and mothers with special-needs children who may also be dealing with health issues and stress.

Michelle Gourdine, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine says black women are an important group to target.

“We tend to suffer from serious diseases including heart disease and high blood pressure and a lot of stress-related illness,” she says. “Part of it has to do with the way that many of us are socialized to take care of others, to place ourselves last, to not necessarily seek help or ask for help.”

Making a change

When Theresa McAlpine joined her sister circle this spring, she was juggling a stressful job as an administrator at a school for special-needs children and shuttling her three kids to various extracurricular activities.

“All that together kind of made me feel really stressed out and needing something,” said McAlpine, 46. “I needed to change something, some aspect of that.”

She joined a sister circle at Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie. At the end of the 12 weeks, McAlpine says her blood pressure went down 20 points and she had made some important behavioral changes: She ate healthier meals, incorporated exercise in her weekly routine and got her husband and three sons to help out more around the house.

“That made a big difference,” says McAlpine, who lives in Temple Hills. “I wasn’t as angry or upset and resentful. I realized I had to make a change for them to make a change.”

But what McAlpine enjoyed most about the sister circle was the camaraderie with other women.

“I really looked forward to going every week,” says McAlpine. “You can kind of let your hair down and be who you are. It wasn’t a judgmental type of environment, which was very important to me.”

McAlpine says that even though she would have liked to have lost more weight — she lost four pounds — she knows the program wasn’t about weight loss. Her attitude about life changed.

And that’s the goal of the program, says Gaston. “Instead of weight loss, we’re talking about wellness and health,” she said. “What does wellness look like? How do I know when I’m healthy? How do you measure that? That’s an important thing to know. That should be their goal — not the weight loss — the health and wellness.”

“The women who go through our program tell us that this program saved their lives,” added Porter. “And they’re not just talking about their physical life, they’re talking about their emotional life.

“Our goal is to do everything we can to start a health movement that will allow all of us to be healthier and to live not just longer,” she said, “but improve the quality of our lives.”