Educating people of African descent about the importance of heart health has long been mission-critical for The Links, Incorporated. Founded in 1946 by two friends who wanted to do good in their communities, the organization now boasts a membership of more than 16,000 professional women of African descent across the United States, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the United Kingdom. Central to their work in the communities they serve is raising awareness about heart disease—the leading cause of death among African Americans and people of African descent —and teaching people how to prevent it. As a Healthy Hearts Network partner, The Links has worked diligently with The Heart Truth® on efforts that further this goal—spearheading National Wear Red Day events, engaging in February heart month activities, conducting cardiovascular risk education programs, and holding Walk for Healthy Living Walk-A-Thons across the country.
Their signature program, HeartLinks, incepted in 2008, provides chapters with a unique opportunity to promote heart disease prevention programs and health behavior change messages in their local communities. HeartLinks addresses the problem of heart disease head-on by encouraging the organization’s members to take an aggressive stance to prevent it. This program specifically calls on chapters to organize healthy living programs within their own service areas and work with other community organizations to encourage those they serve to develop heart healthy habits they can keep for life. In 2006, The Links, Incorporated partnered with the Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis, on a comprehensive and interdisciplinary research program that addresses women’s heart health issues and gender differences in heart disease utilizing basic science, translational and epidemiological approaches. Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, PHD, National President of The Links, Incorporated and The Links Foundation, Incorporated, served as the Principal Investigator on this grant. In 2015, The Links received a Community Action Program grant from The Heart Truth to further conduct research and outreach aimed at improving heart health in African American communities.
After almost two decades, HeartLinks is still going strong. Through the Walk for Healthy Living: 75 Million Step Challenge and the National Annual Walk-A-Thon of The Links, Incorporated, Link members are challenged to walk at least 5000 steps per day. They have shown great creativity in how they implement this program -- some motivate each other with weight loss challenges; others create a “buddy” support system. In her #MovingStory video created with The Heart Truth, National President Jeffries Leonard talks about the powerful effect of efforts like those. “We’ve had chapters transform their communities, which translates to their children, the next generation,” she says. “This is very important in moving the needle to improve heart health.”
Utilizing With Every Heartbeat Is Life (WEHL): A Community Health Worker’s Manual on Heart Disease for African Americans, The Links has utilized structured curricula to move this necessary needle. Since HeartLinks’ beginning, WEHL has been the main cardiovascular health intervention tool, in no small part because the program is designed specifically for African Americans.
Those Links chapters that teach WEHL happily report that it is simple to implement and readily accessible because it is available in our online toolkit,” says Mary Clark, Chair, HeartLinks Signature Program. “One of the things that our members like about it is that they don’t have to invent anything. Everything is there, and it’s like reading a recipe in a cookbook.” Because HeartLinks has used the WEHL curriculum for so long, it has played an integral role in assessing it and providing essential feedback based on years of experience with it. This feedback was used to inform the latest updates to the WEHL materials, which is now available on The Heart Truth website. The Links, Incorporated say that years of implementing the curriculum has also made members better leaders and role models on their journey to “do good.”
The Heart Truth applauds The Links, Incorporated for creating a health intervention that is making a positive impact and also changing behavior, friend by friend, community by community.