The rain that fell intermittently on the morning of July 14 didn’t keep around 45 people from coming to this year’s first Westside Walk to Wellness. And the rain stopped long enough to allow them to complete a mile-long walk around the Garfield Park lagoon.

The event was organized by Rush University Medical Center in collaboration with the Chicago Park District, Garfield Park Community Council and Garfield Park area clergy. It was the brainchild of Rush medical student Kristen Obiakor, who wanted to do something to make a difference in communities that historically suffer from the lack of health resources.

The wellness walks will take place every Saturday for the next eight weeks. They start at 10:00 a.m. at the Garfield Park Golden Dome fieldhouse’s main staircase, 100 N. Central Park Ave. New participants can come to any walk. 

As Obiakor explained, the idea happened between her first and second year studying at Rush. That was the only time during her medical education that she got summer off and wanted to do something meaningful during the break.

“I’m passionate about diminishing health disparities,” Obiakor said. “I went to Dr. David Ansell [Rush’s senior vice-president for community health equity]. We kind of talked about how I can make a difference in my time in summer.”

Dr. Sheila Dugan, an associate professor at Rush, was among many members of the Rush faculty and staff who took part in the walk. She explained that, during the first year, the walk was between the park and Rev. Marshall Hatch’s New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. This year, they are marching around Garfield Park itself, because, it is “an incredible resource.”

Dugan said that purpose of the walks is to demonstrate how ‘moving is a key component to wellness” and to improve the relationship between Rush staff and the people of East and West Garfield Parks.

“People at Rush don’t know [about] Garfield Park] except bad news they hear from TV and newspapers, and people of Garfield Park don’t know that people from Rush do care about their health,” she said.

Last year, Rush had speakers who’d talk for 10 minutes about health issues. Dugan said that this will be happening in 2018, too, adding that Rush tried to select a diverse range of speakers to drive home the point that not only does the medical advice apply to everyone, but that everyone has a potential to improve their health.

Dugan added that there are also some secondary goals. They wanted to reach out to young people who might be interested in medical careers and help them get into the field. And, in addition to helping with physical health, Rush wanted to connect residents with professionals who can help them with “mental resilience.”

“[It’s about] how do you build your reserves when you’re having difficulties in your life?” Dugan said.

Obiakor said that one thing she and Rush in general wanted to make sure was that everything was developed with community input. 

“We met with GPCC, we met with [community] advocates, we met with some lifelong residents of Garfield Park who work at Rush,” she said. “It wasn’t something we created, it was something the community wanted.”

Obiakor said that she was pleased with how last year’s walk brought the community together, explaining that the youth, local police officers, Rush staff and various community members came together as a “great assembly.” And she liked that, during last year’s walks, she saw people cheering as they walked by and coming by to say, ‘Hi.’ This year, Obiakor said, she wanted to see more of those people actually join in.

“It’s a great cause,” she said. “I’m excited to be in year two and I hope to continue doing it for many years.” 

For the first walk, the participants took it relatively easy, making one loop around the lagoon. The distance will continue to gradually increase in the weeks to come, organizers said.

Dawn Gardner, of Austin, was one of the participants who took part in the walk last year.

“I came back [because] I believe what we’re doing is planting seeds,” she said. “One day, it’s going to be a big thing. Last year, we were kind of new to it, so we didn’t know what to expect, but this year, each person is going to bring another person, so we can see community being built.”

Nakyda Dean, of East Garfield Park, is a resident physician and OBGYN at Rush. She said she took part in a few walks last year, but not the first one. She said she was glad to be able to make to this year’s first walk.

Sheri Johnson is another Rush employee from East Garfield Park. She said that she liked the walk, especially since it was a mild walk.

Would she come back next week?

“I think I can,” Johnson replied. “As long as my schedule permits, I’m going to try to do it.”

Her niece, Brittany Young, of Austin, said she was very pleased to be involved.

“I love that they’re doing programs like this to foster community engagement,” she said. “I think it’s key to get the community involved in initiatives that help their health and well-being.”

Cathy Ortega, of Southwest Side’s Clearing neighborhood, came at the urging of her friend, Linda Paez, who works at Rush. She said she liked that the walk started slowly, adding that she will be back the following weekend.

For more information about Westside Wellness Walk, visit


Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...