Tara Fontaine was recovering from gastric bypass surgery in the fall of 2011 when a flier arrived at her doorstep. It was an invitation to a new health and fitness program that the Chester Housing Authority was organizing for its residents. "And I'm like, oh my goodness," said Fontaine, who at the time weighed 385 pounds.
"Free exercise, healthy, this is what I need. "The exercise and nutrition classes helped her lose 100 pounds and change her eating habits. As the program enters its third year, Fontaine, 53, is earning a stipend as a community health worker organizing classes and encouraging others to join. The Chester Housing Authority started what was to be a two-year wellness program in 2011, but it has been given fresh life this year with the help of private donations. Residents have taken ownership of the program and named it ANUME, pronounced "a new me. "Initially funded with $300,000 of repurposed funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the public housing agency offered free fitness classes, nutrition workshops, and trips to farms and grocery stores. The HUD money was awarded back in 1998 for job training for a supermarket and retail development that didn't materialize. Over a decade later, the authority finally received special approval to spend it on the health and fitness classes.Such opportunities are rare in Chester, a city of 34,000 in Delaware County with nearly one-third of its residents living below the poverty level.A survey of 200 Chester Housing Authority residents, most of whom are African American, found a diabetes rate of 28 percent - more than double the national rate among African Americans. Of the respondents, about half were smokers and half said they had high blood pressure.The agency's fitness programs grew to attract as many as 50 people per session. "It kind of exceeded our expectations," said Steve Fischer, the authority's executive director. "And then we got to a point where the money was spent, and the community really wants to continue. "Fischer knew further federal funding was not an option, so he sought private donors. Keystone First and Susquehanna Bank have provided $25,000 to begin the latest session. He hopes to raise $100,000 per year. On Tuesday evening, residents gathered for the first fitness class since the federally funded phase of the program ended last fall. About 20 women filed into the authority's Booker T. Washington Community Center, smiling and shouting greetings to each other as they spread out their exercise mats.Janice Tucker, 58, said she was ready to get back in shape. "I just have to have somebody to motivate me," she said. Led by instructor Lorren Daniels, 35, a Chester native, the women spent an hour stretching, lifting weights, and doing jumping jacks.Heads began bobbing and fingers snapping to the beat of the music as Daniels began class with stretching exercises. "I want everybody to walk away and feel empowered," said Daniels, who now lives in Drexel Hill, works in finance, and teaches fitness classes in her spare time. Fischer said the authority, with 2,300 affordable units, serves mostly single mothers and seniors. Tuesday was the first class for Helen Whittington, 60. She had "a strong prayer" that exercise would ease the daily aches she feels in her knees, neck and arms. "They told me if I exercise every day like this, then I won't hurt as bad," she said. In addition to the Tuesday "boot camp" classes, residents meet Wednesday evenings for outdoor walks and Thursdays for zumba. Fontaine said she has been surprised by the program's success, adding that she exercised with friends during the winter. Said Fontaine, "I didn't think as many people would come out as they had."