The Prince Hall Shriners Step Up to Fight Diabetes
For Oliver Washington, nothing about diabetes moves him more than when he picks up his wife, Martha, from dialysis three times a week. She battles kidney disease as a complication of her type 2 diabetes and has been on dialysis for five years. As he waits for her outside, he sees other patients looking drained and exhausted, waiting for public transportation. It's a frequent reminder of the human cost of diabetes.
Washington, 70, who has type 2 diabetes himself, is the president of the Prince Hall Shriners Foundation, the charitable arm of an African American fraternal organization that dates its founding to 1893. In January, in collaboration with the American Diabetes Association, the Prince Hall Shriners Foundation formed the National Diabetes Initiative to disseminate diabetes education and raise funds for research. The Shriners have pledged to raise $1 million over a decade for ADA.
Nearly 15 percent of all African Americans over the age of 20 have diabetes, some 3.7 million in all. According to the American Diabetes Association, African Americans are 1.6 times as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. The Prince Hall Shriners want to be in the forefront of fighting a disease that has a profound effect on African Americans and on people around the world. "We chose to support diabetes now because it impacts the global community," says Ken Collins, 33, a Shriner and the head of the National Diabetes Initiative. With members around the world, the group has taken up global health issues like tuberculosis and sickle cell disease. The Shriners' charitable work also includes scholarships for students and a mentoring program for at-risk African American youth.
This summer, ADA trained Shriner representatives so that they could take back the latest diabetes information to their membership of 18,000 men and 13,000 women. In November, more than half of the Shriners' temples were enlisted to participate in I Decide to Fight Diabetes Day, bringing diabetes education to churches on one Sunday during the month. (Among the churches participating was Oliver Washington's own First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., which has a special place in history. There, in 1961, a mob threatened the church while Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking to a rally of Freedom Riders, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to call in troops to protect the activists.)
The Shriners also plan to bring diabetes education to health fairs and other community settings, and to promote participation in ADA's Step Out: Walk to Fight Diabetes. They are holding fund-raising events to support the order's new flagship cause. In October, they hosted the first Prince Hall Shriners Diabetes Classic in Albany, Ga., a weekend of events including a football game between Albany State University and Morehouse College, a golf tournament, a concert, and a health fair.
Washington knows that not everyone sees diabetes the way he does, and he says that's all the more reason for the Shriners to raise funds and awareness. "If you're in a wheelchair, people see that," Washington says, "but people can walk by you every day and suffer from diabetes, and you'd never know it. We want to get the word out about how devastating this disease is … and try to find a cure."