When Maria Colon was growing up in Puerto Rico, people didn't talk much about diabetes.
"It was like a secret," recalls the Williamstown resident, 57, who has worked on the front lines against the disease in Camden since 2001.
In recent years, diabetes has become a headline-generating epidemic. It affects 29.1 million Americans, most of whom are susceptible to the elevated blood-sugar disorder because of heredity and a sedentary, high-calorie lifestyle.
But more exercise and less sugar can help a patient avoid expensive complications - and can help prevent a condition called prediabetes from converting into the full-blown disease.
That's where Colon, who in May was named educator of the year by the Garden State Diabetes Association, comes in. She's bilingual, and blessed with a gift for motivating people, particularly Spanish speakers, to change diets and habits. For many years she was the only Spanish-speaking certified diabetes educator in the city.
"The more patients know, the more they can take care of themselves. Many people have good intentions, but they don't have good information," Colon says.
"The knowledge doesn't get to certain communities. People have to know what they need to take responsibility for," says Francine Grabowski, a diabetes educator with the Cooper Diabetes Education Center and the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.
Delivering lectures, brochures, or warnings generally does not inspire people to make the sacrifices and exert the discipline needed to create lasting change.
Some diabetes patients or people at risk for the disease in Camden, where nearly half of the population is Hispanic, speak little English. Some may not read or write Spanish, either, making compliance with medication and monitoring regimens a challenge - and the personal attention of someone like Colon essential.
"Patients feel Maria's love and care," Grabowski says. "This is not a job to Maria, it is a calling."
The stakes are high. Diabetes can endanger a person's kidneys, eyes, and feet. Dialysis, blindness, and amputations can result from an untreated or poorly managed case of diabetes.
"It doesn't get any better than Maria's class," says Ramona Olivares, an outreach coordinator with the coalition. "It's her compassion, and the way she treats her patients."
I can attest to that, having sat in as Colon, who works for the CAMcare community health organization, taught a class of four men and one woman at the Mi Casa Village apartment complex in the Cramer Hill section. The free weekly sessions last two hours, run for a month, and are overseen by the coalition.
Colon, a registered dietitian educated at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, is a motherly but strict instructor. She assigns homework with a smile, and expects results.
"I tell them the truth," she says after the session, which included a lively demonstration about sugar-laden packaged foods to avoid, and a colorful plastic replica of a healthy, balanced meal for comparison.
"I tell them things they don't know," Colon adds. "Things they may not want to hear."
That would include the coalition's estimate that 12.8 percent of adults in Camden have Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, compared to the statewide rate of 9 percent.
Nationally, prevalence rates are 12.8 percent among Hispanics and 13.2 percent among African Americans - who together account for more than 90 percent of Camden's population, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Statistics the association released in June show the overall national prevalence rate for all forms of diabetes increased from 8.3 percent in 2010 to 9.3 percent in 2012. Type 2 accounts for about 95 percent of all cases.
"It's not easy" living with the disease, says Delvia Roman, 57, whose diabetes recently was diagnosed and who is new to Colon's class. We chat during a break, with Olivares translating.
"I'm changing my diet," the grandmother of six says. "I used to drink a lot of soda, and I changed that, and my [blood sugar] number shows it."
No wonder Colon loves her work.
"This," she says, "is the best job I ever had."