HealthSteps members ask St. Mary's to keep it

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LEWISTON — More than two dozen people gathered in a St. Mary’s Health System conference room Wednesday to urge St. Mary’s to keep its HealthSteps program.

They suggested the hospital system better publicize HealthSteps, which offers an array of fitness classes for adults. They suggested classes run only in the fall and winter, when people are more likely to participate. They suggested St. Mary’s increase user fees, cut back on the number of classes offered and allow volunteers to help coordinate.

“We would really appreciate you taking a second look at this and thinking outside the box,” said Gregory D’Augustine, a retired local surgeon who plays tennis through HealthSteps.

But St. Mary’s Marketing Director Jason Gould told the group it was “highly unlikely” that St. Mary’s leaders would change their minds.

“I do want to reiterate, the decision has been made,” he said.

HealthSteps started more than 30 years ago. Classes usually meet at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston or at Bates College’s Merrill Gymnasium. A typical season includes 10 or so classes involving yoga, jogging, swimming or other activities. Often, there is at least one separate class focused on senior fitness.

HealthSteps has inspired fervent loyalty among its members. When St. Mary’s decided to shut down the program in 2014, members banded together to protest.

That outcry saved the program then. But a couple of weeks ago, St. Mary’s  announced it was ending HealthSteps for good because there were not enough participants.

Although St. Mary’s scheduled two “listening sessions” for this week so members could ask questions and express their thoughts about the closure, the hospital system was clear: HealthSteps is going away. 

“We know it’s a program that’s near and dear to folks, but the fact is it just isn’t a viable program,” Gould told the Sun Journal in early August. “We want to make sure we’re being as compassionate as we can in the process.”

On Wednesday morning, Gould and three members of the St. Mary’s Prevention & Wellness team held the first of two listening sessions. For more than 30 minutes, audience members spoke about their love for the program and its need in the community, particularly since HealthSteps is the only way most area residents can use Bates College’s indoor track, tennis courts and other fitness facilities — and many of those facilities are not available elsewhere in the Lewiston-Auburn area.  

“Particularly for tennis, there’s no other game in town,” D’Augustine said. “I know your letter (to members) mentioned there are other options for other aspects of the HealthSteps program, but tennis doesn’t have anything within 30 miles of here.”

Others questioned whether St. Mary’s was sticking to its mission to serve community health, particularly since it also plans to end its weight-management program this month.

“From St. Mary’s perspective, I would presume it wants to be a good citizen of the community and help out the community,” said David Allen, who started playing tennis with HealthSteps about two-and-a-half years ago.

“This is certainly benefiting my health and I would assume it’s benefiting the health of everybody in here in one way or the other. From what I’ve heard, the health of this group will go down without this program.”

Nearly everyone had ideas for saving the program, including dropping the spring and summer sessions, since many people take their fitness activities outside during the warmer months. A number of people said St. Mary’s could draw participants if it promoted the program more.

“I’ve talked to St. Mary’s employees and they’ve never heard of it,” said Dick Houle, who has been part of HealthSteps since 2000. 

Gould repeatedly said he heard the members’ concerns and understood their sense of loss. He said he would take some of their comments back to the St. Mary’s leadership team, but he also indicated there was little-to-no chance HealthSteps would stay.

“I’ve heard your concerns,” he said. “And while I don’t speak for all of St. Mary’s leadership — that’s not my role — a decision has been made to close the program.”

While there seemed to be little chance that St. Mary’s would keep the program, members talked about other ways to save at least some components of HealthSteps — including approaching Bates College about community use of its fitness facilities.

One member collected contact information from others so they could approach Bates as a group. Another member is expected to collect additional contact information from interested members during the second listening session Friday.

That session will be held at 10 a.m. in the Lepage Large Conference Room at 99 Campus Ave. in Lewiston.

After Wednesday’s meeting, members were divided on how it went. 

“I think it’s a beginning, maybe,” said Gert Chasse, a 30-year HealthSteps member.

“I think it’s an ending,” said her HealthSteps walking partner, Gary Bain. “I think it’s a very formal ending.”

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