She's an office administrator at the organization, which provides women with job training and other life skills. While women attended classes twice a week, she would listen as they learned to cook healthy meals from scratch while focusing on the message of the program: cook nutritious meals and limit portion sizes.
Since January, those principles, along with exercise, have helped her shed 28 pounds.
“That was my New Year's resolution every year but this year, I have the tools now,” she said.
Bethesda partnered with CWJC to help clients learn the basics of good nutrition, which includes using less processed foods and adding more vegetables to the diet.
“They don't just help me,” Ms. Barr said. “They help the hundreds of women who go through our program.”
Bethesda also has worked with the East Texas Food Bank, YMCA, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, St. Paul Medical Clinic, TISD and H.E.A.T, a program targeting children.
Ms. Barr has become a patient of Bethesda because the nonprofit agency does not provide health insurance. She admits that she didn't expect to have a short wait or receive quality service at a charitable clinic.
“It's way different than I thought,” she said. “I've come for emergencies and they've put me right in. ... I think it's beyond the care you would get at a regular doctor's office. They want to be here because they volunteer their time, and it shows.”
Nutrition classes ranging from six- to nine-week courses have been offered intermittently throughout the years at Bethesda. It is now led by Pam Van Meter, a certified health education specialist.
A focus on nutrition has slowly expanded at the clinic. Health officials say poor nutrition is at the core of the obesity epidemic and chronic illnesses, which costs have overwhelmingly burdened the health care system.
As the clinic embarks on a 10-year anniversary in September 2013, Dr. John English, executive director, reflected on how the clinic has grown. They took small steps to help 4,400 people in the first year. Today, they have had 18,500 patient visits.
The growth comes from community donations and volunteer hours. It was always part of the vision, English said, to operate the clinic solely from the support of the community.
“We just tried to survive,” English said of the clinic's opening. “We didn't want to run ahead of our resources and not be able to help anybody.”
The clinic's approach to wellness is holistic and proactive. It expands by the day.
Good health begins in the mouth and poor dental hygiene is linked to other illnesses. English said they want to expand its dental program, adding more people to the list of those who are served.
Cooking skills is important for good health, which Mrs. Van Meter said has been lost. Eating out makes it easier to consume large portions of food and fill up on salt, sugar and calories, making the diet void of the nutrition the body needs.
“People need to look at food as fuel,” she said. “This is what's keeping me alive. You eat to live you don't live to eat.”
Before nutrition classes begin, Mrs. Van Meter conducted surveys to evaluate eating patterns, or see if clients are getting enough to eat.
New classes will begin in February, including a seven-week pilot program targeted at the African American community.
Partnering with Texas A&M's Agrilife Extension Service, the classes will be held on Thursday nights at St. Louis Baptist Church.
The interactive course will offer incentives and be overseen by Mrs. Van Meter and registered dietitians. While open to the general public, Mrs. Van Meter said it was important to target the black community, because they are disproportionately affected by type 2 diabetes.
Next year, the clinic will develop a volunteer base to track participants in the nutrition classes. Mrs. Van Meter also wants to hold Tuesday nutrition classes year-round, in addition to offering exercise classes.
“We want to make sure what they don't get it the first time, they can come back to continue their education,” she said. “I have great visions. One of my visions is to have an actual teaching lab where we'll have different stations and be there to cook with me at the same time.”
In addition to tracking progress, the clinic hopes the basics learned in the nutrition classes will resonate with entire families. It's not enough for one person to create a healthy lifestyle, Bethesda officials say. If the family can enjoy and embrace good nutrition, it could break the cycle of chronic illness in each family.
“Part of our core belief is that we can empower our communities to live healthier lives,” English said.
The clinic's classes offer a healthy social setting. Mrs. Van Meter said being supported and feeling valued was just as important to physical health as nutrition.
“We are for the whole person,” she said. “It's not only physically, or mentally. It's spiritually. I think that that's something that's so important. If you can show someone how special they are, that they are wonderfully made, that empowers them with value and it changes their lives.”