Vicksburg groups promoting healthy lifestyle earn national recognition

Published 5:42 pm Saturday, September 8, 2018

For eight years, Shape Up Vicksburg has worked to encourage Warren County residents to follow a healthy lifestyle by sponsoring programs getting people to walk through neighborhoods and the Vicksburg National Military Park as a way of keeping fit.

The organization’s efforts encouraging people to walk through the Military Park caught the eye of the National Park Service’s Office of Public Health, which honored Shape Up Vicksburg, the Military Park and Merit Health River Region with the Park Service’s “Healthy Parks, Healthy People Pioneer Achievement Award.”

The awards were presented Saturday morning at a brief program at the African American Monument during a special walk through the park to celebrate the award.

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Scott Babinowich, director of interpretation at the park, said the awards honored the work of the three groups which since 2011 has led to the walks to help promote a healthy life style.

Some of the participants later served as a chorus for a recording by Rose Rains of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” honoring the 169th anniversary of Harriett Tubman’s journey to freedom.

Park Superintendent Bill Justice said the nation’s parks encourage walking through the national parks, adding the Military Park has had “a long tradition” as a venue for people regularly walking through the park.

Shape Up Vicksburg and Merit Health River Region, he said, developed a program “that got the attention of folks in the Washington office of the National Park Service.”

“I am really honored to be celebrating this award with you today,” Fondren told the walkers assembled to watch the award presentation. “Because there would not be an award if you did not show up, get out of bed, get off the couch, bring your children, your husbands, and come out to all of these walks that we have had here, especially in Vicksburg National Military Park.”

She said the Vicksburg walks began in the Military Park in 2010, “And it was at the time rare to see African Americans walking in the park. It was also not the case to see a mixed crowd walking together in this park.”

Fondren said Shape Up Vicksburg and park officials worked together to develop a program to get people involved in walking in the park “to look the monuments as art; getting the people to look at the battleground as nature. Getting people to listen to the history, the narrative of the history as restored self-respect.

“With all that, people would come up to me and say, ‘Linda, I’ve lived here all my life; I’ve never been to the park.’ People would say, ‘Linda, what African American Monument?’”

She said people didn’t know the history of the African American Monument, which was dedicated in 2004 and honors the African American soldiers who fought at Vicksburg.

“The park is now a part of the community, and the community is now a part of the park,” she said.

Justice said the partnership between Shape Up Vicksburg and Merit Health for the Walk with a Doc Program “not only makes sure people are physically active, but answers some of those (medical) questions that people need to ask.”

Benjamin Richaud, Merit Health administrator, said after receiving the hospital’s a pioneer award the walk with a doc has involved doctors from different specialties who walk with the participants to be available to answer a variety of medical questions.

“It so impressive that they have dedicated their time, and we appreciate that,” he said.

“We are profoundly honored to be a part of this celebration, especially when we celebrate a pioneer like Linda Fondren who brought the whole conception of shape up and how we can become fit physically and spiritually,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr., who also commended Merit Health and Park for their efforts in earning the National Park Service award.

Flaggs also commented on Harriett Tubman, discussing her activity with the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape slavery. “We have millions of people who are free because she was brave enough and tenacious enough and courageous enough to do what she did,” he said.

He looked at the group of walkers. “We stand here together,” he said. “This is the picture we’ve always wanted to show in this park; this rainbow picture today is the picture we’ve always wanted to show.”

Justice, who received the park’s pioneer award, gave a brief history of the African American units that served in Vicksburg in 1863 after the siege, adding, “When their enlistments were up, many of them left the service and settled here in Vicksburg. This is why this park is so meaningful. This park was about that.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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