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Sandra Austin: Improving the Lives of African Americans with Diabetes

December 30, 2008

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Sandra Austin of UAlbany's School of Social Welfare.

Social Welfare faculty member Sandra Austin has won a national award from the American Diabetes Association. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

The next time you're about to dig into an unhealthy treat appealing to your taste buds but not your blood vessels, you'd better make sure Sandra Austin isn't looking.

Austin, an associate service professor at UAlbany's School of Social Welfare, is working with Voices of Wellness (VOW), the health committee of the Albany African American Clergy United for Empowerment. Assisted by a small grant from the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities (CEMHD), Austin collaborated with four church health ministries to stage numerous workshops on how to self-manage diabetes.

"I used my community-building skills to collaborate with the churches in developing health ministries," Austin said. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) contributed a faith-based curriculum on diabetes, which was modified for use by health ministries in the African American communities of West Hill, Arbor Hill, and South End.

Austin received national recognition from ADA for her work as a volunteer who embodies the spirit of the ADA's mission: to prevent and cure diabetes and to improve the lives of all people affected by the disease. She will begin her role as chair of the Capital Region Albany American Diabetes Association Leadership Board in January 2009.

"Sandra's work shows that by marshalling the resources of the University, the CEMHD, and the ADA, we can help those who have diabetes to improve their health and quality of life," said School of Social Welfare Dean Katharine Briar-Lawson.

An estimated 12.3 percent of African Americans in New York State have been diagnosed with diabetes, almost double the rate for Caucasians (6.5 percent). Latinos and Asian Americans also have higher rates of diabetes than whites (7.5 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively).

"Sometimes there is a genetic predisposition, but Type II diabetes can be managed if healthy foods and exercise are a regular part of a person's lifestyle," said Austin.

The social welfare faculty member gave participants a research survey before and after they took the workshops. She also brought in nutritionists, diabetes educators, and podiatrists to answer questions.

The results were encouraging. One church started a walking group. Some changes were made in how church culinary staff prepared food. The churches came together for a holiday healthy food fair.

"Communities are no longer interested in simply being a subject of a study," said Austin. "They want to engage in a process with the researcher that helps them address some of the pressing issues they confront."

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