When Chris Norwood found out she was selected for the GirlTrek Trailblazer Fellowship last year, she burst into tears.
“I was so excited,” she recalls. GirlTrek is a grassroots nonprofit that “mobilizes women and girls to address the obesity crisis in African-American communities.” The organization’s highly-selective year-long fellowship merges physical training with advocacy and service in order to empower women to be healthy role models for school-aged children and peers. Fellowship winners are also provided the opportunity to design a fully sponsored “health-adventure.”
Chris soon began brainstorming plans. When GirlTrek Founder Morgan Dixon asked Chris if she knew what kayaking was, Chris was not entirely sure. “In my mind I had heard of it, but I didn’t really have a clear picture of what it was.” So she looked it up online. Little did she know, that Google search would launch her into a fourteen day, leave-no-trace-camping-and-kayaking expedition in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in the summer of 2013.
“It was the most amazing experience I’ve had in my life,” Chris recounts. “It was very challenging because I’ve never done anything that extreme. You really had to dig deep. It taught me the importance of powering through adversity and having a lot of courage.”
It was social media that initially got Chris, a teacher at a Title I public elementary school in inner-city Detroit, plugged in with GirlTrek: “I first learned about one of their walking challenges on Facebook in Spring 2012. The challenge was to walk thirty minutes a day for forty days.”
So she began walking the track at her school every weekday. Pretty soon, others joined in.
“We had girls of all ages, from kindergarten to sixth grade, walking — roughly twenty to twenty-five girls each day. And parents started walking with us too.”
Chris had become a part of a movement. “I began to connect with women all over the country,” she shares. Boasting over 20,000 participants, GirlTrek is explicitly rooted in community and pays homage to the women who have come before them. As the organization’s website puts it: “When Black women walk, things change. When Harriet Tubman walked, things changed. When the women in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts walked, things changed. And when we walk, things will change!”
When Chris began trekking, things began to change. For one, she lost sixty pounds. But the transformations have extended beyond the physical realm. Walking has also prompted spiritual, emotional, and philosophical lifestyle changes as well for Chris. “As a child, physical fitness wasn’t a big thing at all. But it’s amazing how being outside more and walking more makes you want to do it more,” she says. “That’s what GirlTrek has brought home for me. When you make a commitment to be outside — even when the weather’s not that great — you gain a greater sense of self.”
Chris attributes these changes to increased exposure. “If you had told me four years ago that I would go kayaking in the Alaskan wilderness, I’d tell you you were crazy. But I crave adventures like that now,” she shares with great enthusiasm. “I wasn’t exposed to things like that growing up. I didn’t know I liked to kayak because I had never had that experience. GirlTrek has exposed me to many different things, and now I see it as my responsibility to expose my students and others to those types of experiences as well.”
Indeed, Chris views herself as an agent of change reaching out to a community that is often overlooked. “I put on my superhero blue GirlTrek t-shirt and declare that I will be healthy and I bring others alongside me. We stand in the gap and reach the people who are not always reached by health initiatives. Our demographic is underrepresented in these efforts,” Chris shares. Statistics would support her assertion. According to the GirlTrek website, “Over 80% [of black women] are overweight and 50% morbidly obese. We are dying younger and at higher rates than any other group of women in the country from preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease.” GirlTrek exists to reverse those tragic and dangerous trends, reaching those women who might not otherwise, as Chris puts it, “be doing yoga along the riverwalk or going to CrossFit.” GirlTrek is accessible to all in its simple approach. “You don’t have to have a $500 gym membership,” Chris points out. “All you need is two strong legs and some walking shoes and you can start reaping the physical and spiritual benefits.”
GirlTrek Detroit currently has over 1,000 women registered online, and their Facebook group is peppered with accounts of how trekking has changed lives. “People are sharing stories of how they have lost weight, been able to go off medication, seen their blood pressure go down,” Chris says. “To hear these testimonies is the best part.”
But for Chris — and many other trekkers — what started with simple walks has developed into many extensive adventures all over the country. Last summer, Chris and twenty other fellow Michigan-based GirlTrekkers caravaned out to the Indiana Dunes. Chris has also trekked the Rocky Mountains, completed a triathlon, climbed over 70 flights of stairs for an American Lung Association fundraiser, and ran her first marathon this past month.
Her plans for upcoming adventures? “I’d love to go skydiving. I’d love to explore Michigan more. And I’ve already started planning a kayaking trip for all the Detroit GirlTrek women after the winter thaw. Because it’s all about exposure, exposure, exposure. We want people to realize different things they might enjoy that they might not otherwise ordinarily do.”
Chris’s ultimate dream adventure is to hike The Narrows in Zion National Park. “Every time I see pictures, I want to go there. That’s my nature lust,” she laughs. “My mom recently asked me, ‘When did you become so adventurous?’ I thought about it and responded, ‘You know, maybe I always was. Maybe I just needed permission or someone to tell me that was ok.’”