Even before medical tests showed that Priscilla Odor’s blood-sugar levels were high and her blood pressure and cholesterol levels were just as worrisome, she knew she wasn’t well. The Northeast Philadelphia mother of three was drawn and dragging, hungry all the time but wanting only sweet, sugary foods.

She was also virtually paralyzed by depression. Several years before, she and her children had fled the violence and lawlessness in their native Nigeria. Since then, five of her loved ones had died back home, three of them murdered. So great was Odor’s grief, she could barely bring herself to leave her home.

Things began to turn around for her in late 2019 when she enrolled in the Philadelphia Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), a local initiative based on a successful, science-based strategy developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a yearlong, 22-session behavior-modification program that promotes healthy eating, a gradual increase in physical movement to 150 minutes a week, and a weight-loss goal of 5%-to-7% of a participant’s starting weight.

Odor had been referred to the program by her doctor, who was worried that Odor was at risk for developing diabetes.

“I made up my mind to give it a try,” said Odor, 45. “Just a try.”

Getting to and from the group classes at a city health center in North Philadelphia — Odor was one of about 10 participants — was a three-hour round-trip on public transit. But Odor’s group leader, Marcia Witherspoon, was so encouraging and kind that Odor hung in there. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the class had to go virtual. By that time, Odor and her fellow participants had so connected in their shared quest to get better in mind and spirit that their weekly Zoom calls became a kind of lifeline for them.

“It was like a family,” Odor said. “Everybody was so connected.”

Surprisingly to program leaders, the Zoom format became a boon for the program itself, said Alexandria Skoufalos, an associate dean at Jefferson College of Population Health.

“The retention rate in this program virtually is definitely better than in-person,” she said. “It’s close to 90%. People in the class are all coming every week.”

Neva White, a senior health educator with the Jefferson Health’s Center for Urban Health, has also been stunned by the dedication people are showing in their groups.

“I’ve never had numbers like this in my life,” said White, a veteran health educator.

This is good news indeed. Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. One in five people with diabetes are undiagnosed, and nearly nine out of 10 of people who are prediabetic — as Odor was — don’t know it. Research found a lifestyle change-based program prevented or delayed the onset of Type 2 diabetes by 58% and by 72% for program participants age 60 or older. For those who took a common medication instead, the prevention or delay rate was only 31%.

In Philadelphia, the need for help is clear: It is the poorest of America’s 10 largest cities and it ranks at the bottom of Pennsylvania’s 67 countries counties in health outcomes.

“With a focus on helping people with prediabetes find a path toward healthy eating and exercise, the effort has evidence-based success,” said Mitchell Kaminski, program director of the Jefferson College for Population Health.

In response, in late 2019, the Philadelphia Diabetes Prevention Collaborative was formed with funding support from the American Medical Association. Led by the Jefferson College of Population Health, the group of 20 local organizations — including Temple Health, the Health Promotion Council, and Independence Blue Cross — the collaborative is working to increase participation in the CDC’s Diabetes Prevention Program throughout Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties.

As for Odor and her fellow participants, diabetes prevention brought them to the program, but — when the pandemic shut the world down — the Zoom format gave them both an easy way keep coming back and a place to counter the isolation of the pandemic.

By then, the group had so deeply bonded that the classes even became a trusted forum to process their intense feelings around the reckoning and unrest of that ripped through their communities after the killing in May of George Floyd by police.

“It was almost like a lifeline for the whole group, myself included,” said White. “People were like, ‘This class means so much to me because I’m here, I’m alone, I can’t get to my family.’ It was therapeutic. It was really amazing, to have that many people in the room with you. You felt some sense of normalcy.”

The group’s concern for each other impressed Marcia Witherspoon, the DPP lifestyle coach with the Health Federation of Philadelphia who worked with Odor and her class.

“The group became a family unto themselves — and they looked forward to seeing each other and celebrating each other’s victories,” she said. “They also validated and encouraged each other, especially when life presented obstacles.”

Odor started making progress almost right away, said Witherspoon, and never missed a class. “She made sure to engage in physical activity even when she didn’t feel like it, and she made modest adjustments to her diet, both of which are the bedrock to success in the program. Her success was an inspiration to others, and she was seen as a leader, in her unassuming way.”

Odor lobs the praise back to Witherspoon, who removed obstacles for participants, obtaining tablets for participants who needed them, for example, and arranging to have groceries — especially fresh fruits and vegetables — delivered to their homes. Under such care, Odor gradually felt herself coming back to life.

“I gained a lot of confidence. I became happier because, before then, I didn’t have many people to talk to,” she said. “I made friends and my health changed a lot.”

Indeed: She has exceeded the program’s 5%-7% weight-loss goal, and now exercises 250 to 300 minutes a week, well over the target range of 150. Her children, she said — ages 16, 14, and 12 — are glad to see their mother so much happier and healthier.

Odor has other goals now, too: to get a work permit (in Nigeria, she was a biology teacher) and hopefully a scholarship to continue her education.

Her DPP group members keep in touch now by Facebook, reminding each other of the progress they’ve made and encouraging each other as they pursue new goals and dreams.

“To me, it’s like a second family,” Odor said. “Now I can do the things I avoided doing before.”

For information about enrolling in a DPP class, contact the Health Promotion Council team at 855-344-2844 or programinfo@phmc.org.