Prince Hall Shriners and friends walk to support diabetes awareness (left); Otis Kirksey, director of the Shriners' Diabetes Initiative
TEN YEARS AGO, Oliver Washington was caring for his wife, Martha, who was on dialysis due to kidney disease associated with type 2 diabetes. As he waited for his wife during those treatments, he watched other exhausted patients waiting for the city bus—a reminder of the toll that diabetes can take. That's when he decided to take action. At the time, he was imperial potentate of an African American fraternal organization referred to as the Prince Hall Shriners. He convinced his fellow Shriners to make diabetes one of the organization's charitable causes. That year, the group launched its National Diabetes Initiative with the goal of raising $1 million for the American Diabetes Association (ADA) by 2018.
"Diabetes impacts African Americans disproportionately, so many of our members and their family members have [the disease]," says Otis Kirksey, PharmD, RPh, CDE, BC-ADM, a professor of pharmacy practice at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.
Kirksey, who has a family history of type 2, took over as director of the initiative in 2013. Although Martha and Oliver Washington have since died, their vision continues: In August, the group's $1 million pledge will be complete.
Here's how they made it happen: Each of the 200 or so Shriners temples throughout the country was tasked with raising $500 a year for the ADA and did so through diabetes walks, dances, and bike rides. Some Shriners even took to the streets—you may have seen members standing outside Walmart collecting donations.
But fundraising wasn't the organization's only aim. Outreach is a huge part of their overall mission, so the Prince Hall Shriners also collaborated with the ADA on Alert Day@(held every year on the fourth Tuesday in March to spread awareness about the prevalence of type 2 diabetes), enlisting barber shops and hair salons to direct community members to take the online diabetes risk test. "The effort to educate people about diabetes is tireless and never ends," says Kirksey.
He and Carl D. Parker, the current imperial potentate of the Shriners, have a say in where the money they raise for the ADA goes. One avenue is research. They chose which studies the initiative funds from a list of possibilities. "We try to select projects that will directly impact minority populations," says Kirksey. Currently, the Shriners are funding a study at Temple University in Philadelphia on how sleep affects obesity and type 2 diabetes in African American children from lower-income backgrounds.
The organization's efforts are ongoing. For example, it's sponsoring several productions of Mama's Girls, a play that teaches audiences about diabetes. Looking ahead to 2019, the Shriners plan to submit a recommendation to the general membership for them to vote on whether to renew their pledge to the ADA. The goal: another $1 million over the next 10 years, a sum that will allow Oliver Washington's original vision— bettering the lives of those at risk for and touched by diabetes—to continue.