Lasasha Dean leads a walk on the newly paved trail at a park in  Jena, La.
LaSasha Dean leads a walk on the newly paved trail at a park in Jena, La.

By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

“What have you been doing,” LaSasha Dean’s fellow teachers began asking her newer, more slender frame began sashaying down the Jena Elementary School hallways.

“What diet pills are you on,” asked one.

“What’s your secret,” demanded another.

“Just walking,” the first grade teacher proudly retorted. “Walking and drinking a lot of water!”

Dean began using the newly paved walking trail shortly after it launched, roughly two years ago. At first, it was just to feel better about herself. She weighed-in at 300 pounds. And she wasn’t happy. High blood pressure was an issue, too.

And here she was, she thought —  a sitting member of the LaSalle Recreation 10 District Board, which oversees the small Ward 10 Park. And as talks began to improve that park — better playground equipment, paved walking path — she knew she could do better, she said.

“I tried walking on the track in down town, but it wasn’t real close to my house,” she said. “Then our park’s pathway (at Rec 10 Ward) opened and it was practically right outside my door. So, I didn’t have any more excuses.”

The park improvements, including the nearly 1/4 mile paved trail, is funded in part with dollars from the Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program, which supports the Live Lively LaSalle wellness initiative. The initiative is now in its third and final year.

So Dean began walking. And vowed to give up sodas (“Which was so hard,” she said. “That was my pleasure during the day!”). Sometimes, even her students join her now and then. Maybe a niece or nephew or her own child (ages 7 to 13) will try to keep up. And even if they don’t, the kids wander to the brand new playground equipment in place (hey, that counts as exercise too!).

As the weight came off, her confidence soared. She began posting pictures of herself at the park, blazing down the trail.

“I wanted to show off all the hard work we’ve been putting in out here,” Dean said about the park improvements. “Let people know what’s in their own neighborhood.”

Cynthia Cockerham, Live Lively LaSalle project director, pauses for a moment along the new path with Dean.
Cynthia Cockerham, Live Lively LaSalle project director, pauses for a moment along the new path with Dean.

And, more importantly, perhaps, “To just say, ‘Hey, I’m out here doing this. So can you! I want them to look to me, see me as being consistent with this.”

It was an especially important cause to her, she said, because, as an African American lady, she knows too many of her friends and family have the same issues she’s suffered from most of her life.

“In our community,” she said, “We have  a lot of high blood pressure issues. We love our soul food, we love salty food. But inside, we’re killing ourselves… I wanted to show it didn’t have to be that way. Things could be different.”

So has it worked?

“You know,” she said, “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I see you out there doing it. I know I can do it, too. I’m going to go get me some tennis shoes and start walking.”

And now, if she ever wanted a reason to quit walking (or at least slow down), she certainly has one… She is 10 weeks away from giving birth. But she hasn’t used that as an excuse yet, she says. She’s still out there, doing what’s good for her own body, and the body developing inside her.

“The last time I was pregnant,” she said, “I was sick. I suffered from really high blood pressure. But not this time. Even pregnant, my numbers are 138/84. That’s really good.”

Double good, in this case, Mrs. Dean! You keep going, lady. Indeed, you are the inspiration you’ve always wanted to be.