Faith-Based Center Tips the Scales to Better Health

text and photos by Robin Tierney

The ripple effect of a few individuals' lifestyle changes can rock an entire community. I found bountiful proof of this in Rocky Mount, a town tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. In this beautiful rural haven, the efforts of an innovative faith-based group are having positive effects on personal health and family finances, as well as the community as a whole.

Rocky Mount Lifestyle Health Center whole foods, photo by Robin Tierney 4462

Rocky Mount Lifestyle Health Center whole foods store

Rocky Mount Lifestyle Health Center (RMLHC) offers free and low-cost classes at a well-stocked health food store located in a former bank. Seeing the physical, emotional, and financial toll of health problems throughout the community, Dr. John and Sally Kelly first developed the program at their church. The Kellys upsized the effort after acquiring the bank building and renovating it with assistance from volunteers.

RMLHC's volunteer team includes professionals and lay people who enjoy sharing the gospel through health ministry. The program's principles are summed up by NEWSTART, a fitting acronym that stands for:

  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Water
  • Sunshine
  • Temperance
  • Air
  • Rest
  • Trust in God

"The Bible says that the life of the flesh is in the blood," explains RMLHC health education coordinator Sheryl Dunn. "Healthy blood means overall good health and good circulation. If we are physically well, we benefit in so many ways. Our homes are happier, we have less financial stress due to less medical bills and prescriptions. Our minds are clearer, helping us make better life choices, including abstaining from tobacco, alcohol and other abusive substances."

NEWSTART nurtures positive change through wellness classes running four to six weeks (12 to 16 sessions). Two recent weight-loss classes drew 40 participants. The center's free Monday night health lectures and cooking classes typically attract around 15 people. Insights come from sources such as CHIP, the Complete Health Improvement Program, an evidence-based initiative designed by Dr. Hans Diehl.

The key goal is to empower people to take charge of their health, helping them change eating habits to prevent and reverse heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other diseases.

"What we teach is not a diet, it is a lifestyle," notes Dunn. "The results are usually very good for those who incorporate what we share. Besides pounds, many have significantly dropped their cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. We validate this with a beginning and ending blood draw."

Daily Grind Mountain plant-based un-caviar with edamame chickpeas greens, photo by Robin Tierney.4426

The Daily Grind serves this plant-based un-caviar with edamame chickpeas and greens

I first heard about Rocky Mount Lifestyle Health Center while grabbing a tasty kale-edamame salad nearby at The Daily Grind. Nurse-turned-chef Susan Gauldin told me how RMLHC has made a deep impression on many Daily Grind regulars. One of those regulars, Nancy Bell, supplies Gauldin with vegan cookbooks that feature zesty, whole-food, plant-based recipes.

"I stumbled upon their doctor-supervised program when shopping at their health food store," Bell told me. "Within two weeks I had lost 16 pounds, and after the eight-week program, I had lost a total of 28 pounds. Blood pressure and cholesterol levels returned to normal, and depression and menopausal symptoms were much improved." Then the kicker: "I was able to get off all meds, and continue to be med-free 5 years later."

Bell is executive director of United Way of Franklin County. Her transformation after going vegan spurred her to write grants so that others could benefit from RMLHC's program. A high school version is reaching 400 sophomores each year, she said, explaining that now "the kids want more plant-based meals" at the school cafeteria.

The Daily Grind chef owner Susan Gauldin, photo by Robin Tierney 4421

Nurse-turned-chef Susan Gauldin poses in her whole foods cafe, The Daily Grind

RMLHC is graduating 50 to 75 new plant-based eaters annually, says Bell, and business owners have taken note—and taken action. "The Rocky Mount Kroger now has an entire vegan section near the produce department, and local restaurants like the Daily Grind, Bootlegger Café, and El Rio Mexican Grill have vegan options on their menus."

Back at RMLHC, Sheryl Dunn offered spiritual good sense worth sharing: "In the beginning, God gave us the original diet for overall health and well-being: a plant-based diet and exercise. We were to tend the garden of Eden. In addition, God gave us the Sabbath day to rest…a blessed time to be restored into his image and be 'recreated.'  Much needed stress relief!

"Jesus healed many people of their diseases and then met their spiritual needs," Dunn continued. "We want to follow his example and help those who are suffering, but ultimately point them to their heavenly Father and his Son who loves them and desires only their good. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and we want to glorify God in whatever we eat or drink."

Having a domino effect among neighbors, schools, employers, grocery stores, and restaurants, Rocky Mount Lifestyle Health Center's efforts are energizing the community.

Learn more about RMLHC.

Robin Tierney ( is an award-winning arts and outdoors writer based in the South.



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