Sugar Roane tells everyone she knows that the We Walk PHL program saved her life.
Before she became a Walk Leader in Vernon Park five years ago, Sugar could not walk more than a block without taking a break and using her inhaler. Her asthma was so severe that she was hospitalized for about 17 days each month. When she received an email in 2017 asking if she wanted to be a part of We Walk PHL, a program in partnership with Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, she was surprised.
“I took it as a joke,” recalls Sugar, 63, of Germantown. Still, she went to the program’s first information meeting and spoke to the organizer who’d first reached out to her.
“I said, ‘Look at me. Do you think I can walk?’ And she said, ‘I know you can, and I know you’ll be a good group leader,’” Sugar says. “And it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Now, Sugar is a walking pro, leading twice weekly We Walk strolls. She’s an inspiration to her fellow walkers, wowing them not only with a physical transformation – she’s lost about 50 pounds and hasn’t been hospitalized in years – but also her dedication. During the pandemic, her walking group still met, carefully maintaining their distance from each other while chanting the song Sugar wrote for them, “We are Vernon Park/When we walk, we walk six feet apart.”
Sugar has also shared the joy she gets from walking with out-of-town friends and family. Her seven-year-old granddaughter who lives in State College has launched her own walking group with three friends. The elementary schoolers grab a willing adult and head to the park at least once a week.
“She’s the group leader,” Sugar says proudly. “My son said, ‘You got my whole neighborhood walking.’”
The group of Vernon Park walkers has grown from four in We Walk’s earliest days to about 30 on an average walk today. The participants have different capabilities, and Sugar makes sure they all know that “It’s not a race. It’s at your pace.”
“We have people with walkers, with canes, and no one walks alone,” Sugar says.
She’s formed relationships with her walkers that go beyond the park. One frequent walker has early stage dementia, and Sugar and the other walkers ensure she doesn’t wander off. Sugar also helps the woman with errands on days when they’re not walking together.
“From every group, there are friends for life,” she says. “Everyone is so positive, so uplifting, and it makes me want to do better and better.”
The Vernon Park group meets at 8 am on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A typical walk is about 40 minutes long. Before the walkers depart, Sugar leads them in the Vernon Park cheer and thanks them for coming out.
“These people don’t have to get out of their beds and walk with us,” she says. “I end with a thank you because I want them to know how much I appreciate them.”
Something from your walk that made you laugh: One of our walkers brings along her dog sometimes. One day, we were walking, singing our ‘Vernon Park’ song, and the dog started howling like he was singing. He’d chime in every time we started singing and he’d stop when we stopped. We had people in the park turning around to look, “Is that dog singing? Look at that dog, singing with them.”
One memorable We Walk event: Before Covid, we had an end-of-season cookout at Hunting Park with people from different parks and all of our families and friends. We had DJs and food and it was amazing. We all got out there and walked together – the children, the families, the animals, the walk leaders. At the end, we made a bridge, forming an arch with our arms so people could finish the walk by passing under the bridge. It happened naturally. Everybody knew what to do. It’s an amazing group of people.
A We Walk memory that makes you smile: I always wear fancy sunglasses with glitter, and everybody always comments on them. At the end of one season, I ordered 25 pairs of sunglasses so everyone could have a fancy pair. It was my way of saying thank you.
My favorite thing about WeWalk is… the positive environment, having encouraging and inspiring people tell you, “You can do it!”
Click here to learn more about the We Walk PHL program.
We Walk PHL is funded in part by the Pa. Department of Health’s Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant.