When Jarvis Christian College's homecoming activities begin on March 22, its students, faculty and staff will be doing a little more than celebrating the college's legacy. They will be focusing on weight loss, health and improving quality of life. For the third year, there will be a 5K walk/run, along with new initiatives to get people to think about healthy living.

The college's president, Dr. Lester Newman, established the 5K as a scholarship fundraiser and a fitness initiative to coincide with homecoming week.

A Biggest Loser-type contest, "Be a winner. Be a Loser," also is in the works to spur a friendly weight loss competition among departments and students.

Additionally, a health fair will be held March 23. At the health fair, participants will have a chance to check their blood pressure, glucose and other screenings. The walk/run is set for March 28.

"The fact that we're trying to educate our students on eating right and exercising, gives them a sure chance to be able to hopefully live longer," said Dr. Marcus Chanay, vice president of student services.

The health-related events are open to the public and could be beneficial to the community, school officials said. The small private college sits alongside U.S. Highway 80 in rural Hawkins. Rural areas have been known to have worse health behaviors and outcomes than their urban counterparts and this one is no exception.

According to a 2013 Northeast Texas Public Health District and Texas Department of State Health Services assessment, Wood County has chronic disease prevalence rates that are consistently at or above state rates. Furthermore, heart disease-related mortality rates are significantly higher in Wood County than rates for Texas. The report states that chronic illness and deaths associated with those illnesses will continue to increase without intervention.

Chanay said the recent health initiatives could spur real change in young people there.

"I think it's something that's really great especially when you look at our student population," he said. "You have primarily African American students, a large Hispanic community, both have a higher number of diabetes and high blood pressure. We already have some students with diabetes and some come with high blood pressure and we're talking about 18- and 19-year-olds."

CLOSE TO HOME

Kay Chappell, prospect research/coordinator of church relations at Jarvis, helped organize the health-related events ahead of the 5K.

"We're really focused on obesity, eating healthy and exercise," she said.

It wasn't long ago that Ms. Chappell, 62, had a medical crisis of her own. With gradual symptoms typically associated with a heart attack, she drove herself to the emergency room. It's why she's taking her school's physical activities and challenges more seriously.

"Now it has become more of an important issue for me because I had a heart attack in August," she said. "I'm even more committed to this event now than before."

She's had several months of rehabilitation following the heart attack and must refocus her lifestyle choices.

"There are two components of my lifestyle I have changed: that's exercise—and the best exercise is walking—and of course drinking more water," Ms. Chappell said. "A lot of us are guilty of not doing enough of both."

She said she's committed to walking on a treadmill for at least 30 minutes to an hour per day. Ms. Chappell said her family has a history of heart problems and she was aware of it. However, she admits she didn't always eat well.

"The bad part about it is that I was a teacher and a coach," she said. "After I was done teaching and coaching, I was still active but I later settled into a sedentary lifestyle … There are things that I should have been doing and could have been doing to prevent this. Now I'm forced to be more aware."

A COMMITMENT TO FITNESS

Jazmyne Smith, 23, of Houston, is leading the charge for improved health on the small campus. Crowned Miss Jarvis in October, the athletic student thought she'd bring her message about health to the community.

"My platform for the year is to Commit To Be Fit — being active in our daily lifestyle," she said.

A former basketball player who loves to work out, Miss Smith notes that college students tend to have poor eating habits, with easy access to fast food.

"I'm trying to uplift and encourage people to eat better and to be active people," she said."

She said while changing habits is difficult, it can be made easier when people are educated and motivated.

"Knowledge and demonstration is the only way to change that," she said. "If they see you eating healthy and working out, they're going to want to do it too."

Miss Smith is currently interested in starting a Zumba class on campus. She said a group fitness with music would be more appealing to young adults. Meanwhile, she and fellow students continue to work out in the weight room of the school's gym.