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Black Women’s Health and Wellness Center Opens, Seeks Community Support

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Lisa Payton-Caire speaks at the announcement of the Black Women's Wellness Center in May. Photo by Robert Chappell.

On the 13th anniversary of the too-early death of her mother from congestive heart failure, Lisa Peyton-Caire took the next step in her long journey to help other women stay healthier and live longer, announcing the opening of the new Black Women’s Health and Wellness Center.

“In a tiny, dimly lit hospital room in my home city of Richmond, Virginia, in that truly devastating moment in my life, was also a blessing,” she said. “Not only did I spend it with her, but it changed my life, my perspective, and awakened me to something that now has become the powerful catalyst and the spark for the work that I’ve committed my life to.”

In an emotional press conference, Peyton-Caire stood in the main room of the Center’s new home on Grand Teton Plaza on Madison’s west side, flanked by more than a dozen supporters and volunteers, to announce that all the work her Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness does in borrowed spaces across the city would now have a home. Elected officials like State Rep. Shelia Stubbs and Madison Common Council President Shiva Bidar were in attendance along with representatives from sponsors and many other community organizations.

These women, including myself, stand here today representing, and in honor of, not only my mother, but many mothers,” she said. “There are many women in this group whose mothers have departed prematurely. But we stand to represent them, ourselves, and the more than 15,000 Black women who reside in Dane County, and the thousands more who live throughout our state, who we advocate for daily, who we carry in our hearts, who give us purpose in this work, and for those who’ve been touched in some way by this work for the last seven years that we’ve been doing it in Wisconsin.”

Women from a range of community organizations stood behind Lisa Peyton-Caire at the press conference Wednesday. Photo by Robert Chappell.

Peyton-Caire started working toward improving health and wellness for Madison and Dane County’s Black women ten years ago with the establishment of the first Black Women’s Wellness Day, which now takes place every September.

“It started as 40 women in a very small library, and has grown now to nearly 600 women and partners who gather right here in Madison each year to focus on improving our health,” she said.

She then established the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness in 2012 and left her job at Summit Credit Union to run the foundation full time a year ago.

“That one day event was not enough, and we had to create something bigger, and we needed to spark a movement that would not only engage women personally as individuals and families in the work of improving their health, but we needed to insert ourselves at the decision making tables also,” she said. “To shape and influence how systems and policies were impacting our lives as well. So, the foundation was born.”

The foundation does a lot more than that one-day event now: yoga and fitness classes; connecting women to health insurance and free- and low-cost health screening, health care and dental care; connecting women to housing; helping with financial well-being; helping women connect with resources to get their GEDs; advocating for policies that will reduce health disparities; and more.

“We currently reach and engage over 1,000 women and girls in our health and wellness programming and support services,” Peyton-Caire said. “And we’ve done all of this without a real home. We’ve done all of what we do in so many locations across the city, which is a beautiful thing because we spread ourselves around. There’s Black women everywhere, we’re not centralized in one place. So wherever we are centralized, we are serving. But it has been a challenge to travel and to schedule. We felt that now is the time to make the move to root what we do in a place we can call home, and build continuity and pull all those wonderful things we do together.”

Testimony

Several women offered testimony about how the Foundation has affected — and in some cases saved — their lives.

“Personally, with the support of the Foundation for Black Women’s wellness, myself and so many others have found a starting point to a journey of wellness,” said Tam Washington, who also lost her mother at a young age and herself struggled with weight gain and high blood pressure, and became a volunteer with the Foundation after attending Black Women’s Wellness Day two years ago. “We have grown a passion for encouraging wellness not only in Dane County and Wisconsin, but for women around the country who we are connected to in one way or another. We have been last for so long in so many ways. It’s time to start putting us first, because we are worth it. The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness puts us first, and holds our community accountable and responsible for putting us first too. This center, which in a few months, will be a beautiful healing space for so many women will also put us first. And we thank you, our community for your support to make it happen.”

Over several years, I have personally witnessed the Foundation touch thousands of lives each year, through the work we do all across the county, much of which you see, and much of which is done quietly every day,” said Mary Wells, who struggles with lupus, like many Black women do, and who now works as community outreach manager for the Foundation. 

Wells’ sister Christine Lashore also shared her story of coming to a Black Women’s Wellness Day seven years ago, even though she didn’t want to.

Seven years ago, my sister invited me to the Black Wellness program. I went, but I was high off of crack cocaine,” she said. “I had been doing crack cocaine for over 20 years. Didn’t want to go, but I went anyway, because I made a promise. Got there, kept looking at the time, 9 to 5 was too long for me. But I just stayed at it. Come 5:00 I was relaxed, I was comfortable, I did yoga, I did some dancing, I drank some green stuff. That moment started making me think about turning my life around. A year later, I went to treatment, I’ve been clean for six years now. I can hold my head high because this Foundation helped me change my mind around, to care about myself, to take care of myself, and to live a better life.

I’m a single parent, trying to maintain a household by myself, and raise three children by myself. So, at the end of the day, I had no time for me or to think about my health and well being and my mental and emotional state,” said Jackie Donald. “But my turning point was, a couple of years ago, my little girl, which is now 18 years old now, turned out to be pre-diabetic. And this was at the age of 16. So it made me more aware, I had to take a backseat. Because, not only did I have to worry about my child’s well being, I had to take a backseat with mine. And I was putting everybody else’s health and well being before mine. And it started affecting me too. This program and this Foundation saved my life.”

Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness supporters react to emotional testimony at the new Black Women’s Health and Wellness Center on Wednesday. Photo by Robert Chappell.

 

A new home

The new location will become a home base for many of those activities, though Peyton-Caire said many programs will still take place throughout the community. The new space will be a home office for the Foundation staff and volunteers as well as a space for yoga classes, Sister Circles and other support groups, and might even be able to provide clinical screenings and similar services in the future.

To that end, Peyton-Caire said she’s been in touch with Center for Men’s Health and Education founder Aaron Perry, whose center is located just blocks away inside JP Hair Design on Grand Canyon Drive, and provides basic services like blood pressure screening and health education services for men.

“We also have our partners in public health, and we’ve begun to talk about early exploration of what we can do here. So, don’t count it out,” Peyton-Caire said.

The space so far amounts to three very nice, bright, but empty rooms — which will change soon, with some community help.

Peyton-Caire says she’s asking the community to raise $100,000 to furnish and decorate the space and assist in operations.

So today, we ask the community to please help us, to open the center by the end of the summer by making donations, and asking your family and friends and neighbors to donate,” Wells said. 

Peyton-Caire also said donations of furniture, art and decorating expertise would be welcome. A full opening date has not yet been set.

“We’ve got money to raise, so at the pace that which we can raise those resources, the space will open,” she said. “But we’re thinking that late summer, just before Women’s Wellness Day would be a likely time.”

The fundraiser is off to a good start — over $15,000 has been raised in the first three days. Community members can donate at https://www.gofundme.com/blackwomenswellnesscenter.