Runners at the starting line of the 2016 Gospel Run 5K in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Gospel Run)

Runners at the starting line of the 2016 Gospel Run 5K in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Gospel Run)

Growing up, Nyasha Nyamapfene recalls that her family had “more diseases than people.” Poor diet, lack of exercise and other lifestyle factors were the main reasons.

“I grew up in a household focused on disease, because that was the norm,” she said. “For many communities that face the greatest trauma and risk factors, healthy behaviors are not part of the culture.”

Now, Nyamapfene is trying to change that through Chicago-based Gospel Run, a public health organization that partners with churches to motivate communities to get active. Its annual signature event is the Gospel Run 5K.

Nyamapfene’s organization was the first place winner of the national urban business storytelling competition at the American Heart Association’s inaugural EmPOWERED To Serve Summit in Washington, D.C., this fall.

The competition, which drew nearly 130 entries, aimed to identify innovative yet practical solutions to remove barriers to improved health and well-being in urban neighborhoods.

According to research by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, community environments play a determining role in health outcomes, and people living just 5 miles apart can have a difference in life expectancy of more than 20 years due to factors such as economic stability, education, societal influences, neighborhoods and health care.

Witnessing her family struggle with chronic health issues during her childhood inspired Nyamapfene to help others create healthy lifestyles.

Her mom struggled with diabetes and was moved to a nursing home by age 60, and required dialysis. Her dad had high blood pressure and chronic heart failure, enduring multiple heart attacks and strokes that sharply diminished his quality of life.

By age 15, Nyamapfene knew she had to make changes to protect her own health and began with her diet.

“I started cooking for my family because I knew we shouldn’t be eating fast food every day,” said Nyamapfene, who shed 50 pounds and ultimately became a marathon runner.

Since its founding in 2013, the Gospel Run 5K in Chicago has drawn 5,000 participants.

Nyamapfene said working with the faith community is crucial because churches play such an important role in creating a culture of change and support.

“It takes a lot of faith to see that change is possible, especially if you haven’t seen it with your family,” said Nyamapfene, who is using the competition’s $30,000 award to work with the AHA to start similar runs on the East Coast. “Getting healthy can be very difficult and a long journey, and that is something that takes a lot of faith and support.”

Maria Rose Belding earned the competition’s $20,000 second place award for a project that helps get fresh food that might otherwise be thrown away to local homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the Philadelphia area.

While volunteering at food pantries in her hometown of Pella, Iowa, Belding was frustrated after realizing how much fresh food was discarded by local food retailers.

“We’d get people with Type 2 diabetes come to the food pantry and all we’d have were pop tarts or fruit canned in sugar,” Belding said. “I realized that it doesn’t matter how great our medical treatments or medicine are if you don’t have good food to eat.”

At 14, Belding created MEANS Database, a nonprofit technology company that now operates in 49 states and in Washington, D.C., and has connected organizations with 1.6 million pounds of fresh food.

Now 22, and majoring in pre-med and public health at American University in Washington, D.C., Belding is taking her mission to the next level by using her prize money to partner with Food Connect, a Philadelphia-based organization that picks up unwanted food and delivers it to organizations that can distribute it.

Cecil Wilson of Matteson, Illinois, earned the competition’s third place award for his company Goffers, which employs local residents to act as personal runners for customers, who lack transportation or the physical ability to run the errands, like picking up medications or going to the grocery store. The neighborhoods that Goffers serves in the Southland area of Chicago are food deserts, where there are few options for fresh foods nearby.

“We’re trying to send the message that we need each other and we can work together,” said Wilson, 21, who is using the $10,000 award to expand the company’s marketing and advertising.

From left, urban business storytelling competition winners Maria Rose Belding, Cecil Wilson and Nyasha Nyamapfene at the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. in October. (Photo by American Heart Association)

From left, urban business storytelling competition winners Maria Rose Belding, Cecil Wilson and Nyasha Nyamapfene at the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in October. (Photo by American Heart Association)

The entrepreneurs’ community-tailored approaches are crucial to changing behaviors and eliminating health disparities, said Mark Moore, a two-time stroke survivor whose Mark and Brenda Moore Family Foundation has provided funding to EmPOWERED To Serve.

“It’s about taking ownership of our health,” said Moore, who grew up in a food desert in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York. “We must be our biggest advocates and we must all get involved.”

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