District resident Sonja Houze knew it was time to change her life. Houze, now 53, was raised to eat right and stay active. But by the time she joined the Prime Time Sister Circle in 2008, she wasn’t exercising. She’d forgotten how to eat healthy and chowing down on fast food had become a way of life.

“I got caught up in work,” said Houze, who works in technical support. “Sometimes the schedule would keep me busy at work kind of late, and so I’d grab whatever I could.”

Dr. Gayle Porter (red blouse) and Dr. Marilyn Gaston (Photo by Prime Time Sister Circle)

Today, Houze is a facilitator for the Prime Time Sister Circle, a non-profit organization founded by Drs. Marilyn Gaston, 78, and Gayle Porter, 71. It is based in the District and runs circles there, as well as Prince George’s County and Silver Spring, Maryland. Right now, there are eight circles.

The free program, paid for through multiple grants, uses a curriculum, homework, experts, and facilitators like Houze to teach Black women between the ages of 40 and 75 about nutrition, fitness, healthy eating, and stress management. These are skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

“We as Black women in midlife, we don’t really talk about our age and we’re getting older,” said Porter, who has been friends with Gaston for 40 years. “If we talk about anything, it’s about our menopause. This period of midlife is even more a period of growth and maturing than the period of adolescence.”

Black women in this age group tend to die prematurely from heart disease, cancer, stroke and type-2 diabetes, Gaston said. Many times, grandmothers falling within that age group are primary caretakers, she added.

“The women had those issues and struggled with stress, depression . . . anxious about what was going to happen,” Gaston said. “And in the Black community acknowledging that you’re stressed, depressed, or anxious . . . they were trying to maintain their stoic stance at very great cost to them physically and psychologically.”

Prime Time Sister Circle in session. Non-profit Founders (insert L to R) Gayle Porter and Dr. Marilyn Gaston. (Photo by Prime Time Sister Circle)

The program lasts 13 weeks and the sessions are two hours long. In them, like-minded women form a close bond by working on their individual issues and holding each other accountable. They also learn to prioritize themselves before looking after others.

“We’re so busy taking care of Lottie, Dottie, and everybody that we don’t take care of ourselves,” Gaston said. “Once you become healthier and more fit you’re better able to take care of people.”

Women in this age group play a key role in society, Porter said. They are the role models and the matriarchs. They do the shopping and have influence at work and in church, Porter said. “We knew if we could change one Black woman in that group in terms of changing her life style . . . it’s going to have a ripple effect,” she said, adding that their participation encourages their husbands, life partners, children, and others to change their poor health habits as well.

Roughly 3,000 women have completed the program since it began in 2003. Some, like Houze, have also become credentialed facilitators. Facilitators and the other experts look like the women in the circle. Gaston says that’s by design, because a young dietician, for example, won’t get a woman in her 60s to change a recipe for mac and cheese.

By the end of her 13 weeks, Houze started walking around outside during her lunch breaks and would go on to power walk through 5k races. She learned how to read food labels, understood serving sizes, and monitored her fat intake. She also started breathing and meditating to cope with stressful situations.

Houze lost 10 pounds and dropped her cholesterol by 10 points. The program, she said, helped her live a better life, which is why she decided to pay it forward by becoming a facilitator. “It’s for me the gift that keeps on giving and it’s the greatest blessing for me,” Houze said. “When you get a gift that great, how can you keep it to yourself?”