DiabetesSisters CEO Anna Norton with a group of membersShare on Pinterest
DiabetesSisters CEO Anna Norton with a group of members. DiabetesSisters/Photo

DiabetesSisters was founded in 2008 to help and empower women with diabetes to live full and healthy lives.

Since then, the nonprofit organization has been striving to provide diabetes education and support to diverse women across the United States.

DiabetesSisters now operates local support groups in nearly 20 states from one coast to the other, as well as online meetups. In areas where no local support groups are currently running, the organization provides resources to help women build networks in their communities, including online meetups.

We wanted to know more about how this grassroots organization has been able to have such a positive impact on women living with diabetes. To find out, Healthline connected with health and fitness experts who have played a role in developing DiabetesSisters’ programs.

Their stories offer inspiration to take to heart. Beyond supporting women with diabetes, DiabetesSisters offers a window to help other community groups see what it takes to make an impact.

Diabetes is an “educational disease,” according to Frank Lavernia, MD, a member of DiabetesSisters’ board of directors.

The more that someone with diabetes understands the condition, “the more empowered they are to deal with it,” Lavernia told Healthline.

To help women access the information and develop the skills they need to manage diabetes, DiabetesSisters has partnered with healthcare professionals nationwide.

For example, Lorena Drago, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator who provides bilingual and multicultural nutrition education through her company, Hispanic Foodways.

Since 2017, she’s collaborated with DiabetesSisters to provide English- and Spanish-language nutrition education to women in New York, Illinois, Florida, and online.

Her bilingual approach helps DiabetesSisters reach women who are at high risk for developing diabetes and related complications. Type 2 diabetes, for example, affects about 17 percent of Latino and Hispanic Americans — compared with 8 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans.

“There are many people with diabetes who are Spanish-speaking who need culturally and linguistically appropriate and actionable education,” Drago told Healthline. This education needs to be “tailored to food preferences, health practices, and beliefs.”

Drago sees DiabetesSisters’ collaboration with healthcare professionals and outreach to Latino community members as critical to its success.

By teaching women how to eat well with foods from their own pantries and cultural cuisines, educators like Drago equip them with knowledge and skills they can apply every day.

Kate Ryan and her partner, Gene Hicks, are the owners and operators of Hip Hop Fit with Gene Hicks, a small group fitness studio in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.

They first started working with DiabetesSisters a couple years ago, when Gene brought his workout to a series of free community events at their studio, Ryan told Healthline.

These events were part of DiabetesSisters’ Minority Initiative, which was launched in 2016 to improve awareness, education, and peer support for underserved populations of women.

Each event has combined nutrition education and a fun workout for an interactive experience.

“For example, diabetes care and education specialist Lorena Drago discussed myths and misconceptions about diabetes, and Barbara Eichorst [a dietitian and diabetes care and education specialist] discussed nutrition and healthy eating choices,” Ryan said. “After the discussion, all the attendees enjoyed a hip-hop fit workout with Gene.”

Ryan said that such events are hugely successful for educating community members on diabetes nutrition and encouraging them to get active. “Access to fun and approachable exercise options can be a challenge that all of us face, including those living with diabetes.”

“People who might not have attended or enjoyed a workout before get to experience a new class and end up having a blast,” she added.

Fadhylla Saballos Tercero, MPH, RD, CDN, IBCLC, is a registered dietitian in the community pediatrics program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York.

This program serves residents of the poorest congressional district in the country, many of whom face financial and social barriers to accessing medical care and other essential resources.

“There are particular challenges that come with living in the South Bronx, especially amongst our Black and Brown community living with diabetes,” Tercero told Healthline. These challenges directly affect “patients’ ability to manage their diabetes.”

For example, low income levels make it harder for many South Bronx residents to afford healthcare appointments, medications, and nutritious food.

More than 40 percent of South Bronx residents live in poverty — and roughly half of all households in the South Bronx receive support through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Housing instability, lack of green space, and high levels of industrial pollution also make it harder for people in the area to stay safe, healthy, and active.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tercero’s team collaborated with DiabetesSisters to host diabetes speakers and a Part of DiabetesSisters (PODS) support group meetup at their center.

This meetup provides “a safe space for women and femmes to voice their concerns, frustrations, and experiences living with diabetes,” she said. “Women often carry stressors that are not always recognized by society. Therefore, having a space where everyone feels understood is really powerful.”

Although DiabetesSisters has currently paused in-person meetings due to the pandemic, the organization plans to restart when it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, DiabetesSisters continues to foster connections through virtual meetings online.

PODS meetups in towns and cities across the country give women in diverse communities a chance to share stories, resources, and tips that are relevant to their experiences.

What does success look like for a diabetes education program? The key, says Drago, is to empower women “to translate the knowledge they receive and apply it to their lives.”

According to the health and fitness experts that we heard from, DiabetesSisters achieves this goal through its interactive program design and its responsiveness to community members’ health needs.

The organization is also committed to reaching underserved populations, including Hispanic, Black, and South Asian communities.

“DiabetesSisters has reached out to many diverse communities,” Lavernia said. “Its interactive programs have resulted in the development of better teaching tools, such as resources in multiple languages. Patients help us find gaps that we as teachers were unaware of!”