In even the most diverse groups, health is the tie that binds communities. In Coastal Georgia a group called Healthy Savannah is working to ensure that access to exercise isn’t a barrier to a healthy lifestyle.  

Starting in 2007, Healthy Savannah grew from a seed planted by former Mayor Otis Johnson after he suffered a heart attack. Health for all communities, especially Savannah’s majority Black residents, came into sharper focus. Under Executive Director Paula Kreissler, the group’s mantra has been simple: “Make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

“We are working to make some of the unsafest safer and the city is right alongside,” she said.

After all these years, however, finding affordable ways to exercise is still a challenge. A full 76% of the approximately 500 people who responded to Healthy Savannah’s 2022 annual survey said that free or publicly accessible forms of exercise, like sidewalks, were “extremely important,” while 75% cited public recreation facilities and 66% said bike lanes/walking and hiking paths rated at the same level of importance. 39% of participants cited private gyms as extremely important.

However, a 2014 GIS study conducted by transportation planning and engineering firm Transport Studio, shows that 73% of Savannah’s city streets do not have a sidewalk, meaning that one of the easiest and cheapest forms of exercise — walking — is more difficult than it should be.

Meanwhile, some urban planning reports show that more than half of the country’s most dangerous roads for pedestrians are in predominantly Black or Latino neighborhoods. That has spurred community groups to find low-cost and accessible ways for their neighbors, congregations and colleagues to be physically active and healthy. 

Fortunately, many community members and organizations center their work on bridging gaps where they see need.  

Steps toward a healthier life 

GirlTrek is a nationwide organization that encourages Black women to get out and walk as a way of bettering their health and in turn their lives. Savannah native Ericka Davis fell in love with walking in 2013 when she joined GirlTrek in Atlanta. Invited by a friend, Davis said her affinity for being outdoors grew as she continued walks with the group. 

Now back in Savannah as a crew leader, she gets to share the organization’s mission and her love with Black women. Walking daily, she says, is a “radical act of self-care,” emulating one of GirlTrek’s mottos.

A group from GirlTrek Savannah walks along the trail at Hendrix Park on Saturday July 29.
A group from GirlTrek Savannah walks along the trail at Hendrix Park on Saturday July 29. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

“Not only do we walk for health, but we walk for our communities,” Davis said. “We walk for things that are just in the world.” 

Another of the group’s goals is walking as a way to combat health disparities. 

“I’m doing what I can do to make sure that I don’t fall into those categories,” Davis said.  

On the morning of July 29, Davis’ crew gathered at Hendrix Park in Bryan County for their weekly Saturday walk.

Jacqueline Chapman arrived for her second walk with the group. She says she finds motivation from the energy of the organization. 

“I just felt like if I could keep moving, I won’t succumb to, you know, my brain saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Chapman said. 

Chapman used to be a runner, until her rheumatoid arthritis got too bad. Now, since she has started walking more consistently, her RA is less severe, she says. 

“I mean, who wants to live long and can’t move?”

If you build it, they’ll come

Mike Watson always had a passion for training. Now in Savannah, he started a mobile gym to bring his knowledge to young athletes and everyday community members alike. 

On the east end of Daffin Park, Power in Faith Fitness is Watson’s outdoor training gym with an array of equipment. Originally just wanting to train athletes, Watson said that training a wider range of clients has helped better him as a trainer. 

Coach Mike Watson’s clients exercising at a Power In Faith Fitness boot camp. Credit: Mike Watson

On the side of his equipment trailer, a chart showing a pathway to performance strength and conditioning starts with avoiding disease. Watson said all the men in his family passed away before getting to 65, due to health related issues. Having this firsthand experience, Watson said it’s important to prioritize health not only for one’s own life, but the lives of their loved ones. 

“It doesn’t guarantee you’re gonna live forever. No, I tell people that. But, I can promise you this, it’ll guarantee you a better quality of life,” Watson said. 

According to the 2023 Charles Schwab Modern Wealth Survey, 63% of participants chose being in good health over being successful as a measure of feeling wealthy. When asked what being wealthy meant to them, 40% of participants mentioned “well-being”. 

Watson said he’s seen the impact his training had on his clients and pointed to Tatia Heichel, who joined him that afternoon for her training session.

“I said I’m gonna give myself three months at it. If it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. I stayed with it three months. And here I am three years later,” Heichel said. 

When she started training, Watson said she could barely lift her knees. Now, Heichel is not only doing pull ups and squats, but feels she is improving her quality of life. 

“Yes, this is something that helped my lifespan, you know, and I don’t want to turn 60 and not be able to walk or I’ve got bad joints or sore muscles all the time,” Heichel said. 

She spoke highly on the atmosphere Watson creates, calling the people she trains with her “Daffin family.” When training, she doesn’t think about work or life stresses, but focuses on herself and bettering her life. 

Heichel said since 2020, she has only missed about 4 days of training. 

Watson begins an 8-week-long boot camp series every other Saturday starting this month. The first boot camp will be free for attendees and is set for August 26.

Sharing the road 

Nichele Hoskins began helping promote Black Girls Do Bike because she believed in its mission. As someone with a longstanding love for exercise, Hoskins said there’s potential benefit to creating spaces where Black women can come together surrounding fitness. 

Hoskins serves as the REACH Covid/Flu Communication Manager with Healthy Savannah and “shero” or local coordinator for Black Girls Do Bike. She highlighted the importance of creating a critical mass of Black women in the organization to build community and share resources to fuel healthier lives. 

Black Girls Do Bike is a nationwide non-profit organization focused on bringing together work of color with an interest or passion for cycling.

Hoskins and Kreissler originally were introduced to Black Girls Do Bike by Jacquelyn Black, the chapter’s founder. 

Wanting to combine her passion for biking and social justice, Black said she reached out to the organization’s founder, Monica Garrison, to find out how to start a Savannah chapter. The group is looking to host a guided ride September 23. 

Faith in the walk 

Chatham County’s 75-acre Lake Mayer Community Park includes a tennis court, playground, boat dock, skate park, boat ramp and more. The park is outlined by a 1.5 mile jogging and biking fitness trail, with exercise equipment along the path. 

Attendees walk together along the Lake Mayer trail at the Healthy Savannah Faith and Health Coalition Faith Walk event.
Attendees walk together along the Lake Mayer trail at the Healthy Savannah Faith and Health Coalition Faith Walk event. Credit: Byron Childs Productions

The Faith and Health Coalition, a standing committee of  the Healthy Savannah board, led a walk in mid-July at this popular outdoor space, along with community organizations such as Farm Truck 912, which offered a healthy cooking demonstration, and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, which gave out free produce to attendees. 

The Tide to Town route, a 30-mile route that would connect the Southside to Downtown Savannah if it receives the funding to build further. Credit: City of Savannah

A crowd of just over 100 of all ages joined in a walk around the park’s trail, some quickly moving to the end and some at a more leisurely pace. T-shirts with various organizations’ logos spread throughout the group. Other organizations highlighted at the event included Black Girls Do Bike, and GirlTrek. 

After the walk, Armand Turner, Physical Activity Program Manager with Healthy Savannah, spoke to the crowd about Tide to Town, a proposed trail system that would connect all of Savannah with a protected biking and walking trail. Turner held up the map showing where the trail would go and how it would connect different trails, part of which the group passed on their loop around Lake Mayer.  

Serving the whole person

One of the most enthusiastic organizers was Pastor Yolanda Roberson and her Kingdom Life Christian Fellowship. Her goal is to minister to her church holistically, focusing on their well-being spiritually, mentally and physically . 

Kingdom Life Christian Fellowship serves a multigenerational congregation that is predominately Black.

“Congregations are made of people. And, the people in those congregations, if they are healthy, our community’s healthy, which makes for just an overall scope of a better community,” Roberson said. 

Roberson, a Savannah native who serves on the Healthy Savannah board, said the church went through the 8-week virtual Faith, Activity, and Nutrition training led by the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health on how they can assist their congregation in becoming healthier.

“I think once people actually understand and get the word about what we’re actually trying to do, people are excited because most folks want to be healthier, they want to live a healthier life, right? They just want to have the correct information about how they can actually do that,” Roberson said. 

Sarah Harwell is a Florida native and rising senior at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She has served as a brand engagement manager for Centric magazine and beat reporter for NSM Today, both...