Doug Mercer is the founder of the Wellness Foundation, which this week celebrates its 10th anniversary. He spoke about the organization’s humble beginnings, and how far it’s come.
So how did it all begin?
So that was back in the winter of 2005, when I was really soul-searching, really trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the last third of my life. And on the front page of The East Hampton Star, I saw a picture of kids in the middle school boycotting the lousy food they were getting in the cafeteria. It didn’t hit me right away, but when I woke up the next morning I thought to myself, if those kids are ready to stand up for wellness and health, why don’t I try to introduce what I’d learned in my 10-year wellness journey to the community, and see whether it works. So it was really the kids, and Ginny Reale and Barbara Tracey. It was those wonderful kids, really, that did it.
What inspired your own personal wellness journey?
I was motivated to move in this direction because of tragic family health. I saw my dad, at the peak of the American success story, in his young 60s have a horrendous stroke and suffer along with the rest of the family for another 10 years before he passed. I figured I didn’t want to go down that path. At that time very little was known about the impact of healthy lifestyle. The light went on for me when I went to the Optimum Health Institute in Austin, Texas in 1999, six years before I started the foundation. Good health is the stepping stone to achieve what you want in life, achieve your potential, and that certainly has been true for me in spades. All of this stuff is really ridiculously simple, there’s no question that this works and the challenge is really just to get people’s attention. But it has to come from within. We talk about it in terms of planting seeds.
And so how has it evolved in the last 10 years?
Most important thing we’ve done is that we’ve established two new concepts within the healthcare system. The first is the education of people, so people can take care of themselves and can manage their own health destiny instead of being passive and being a victim of the food companies. People can then manage their own lives and become part of the solution, rather than the problem. Of equal importance, really, we’re providing lifestyle programs to treat chronic illness. We’ve put prevention and the reversal of these diseases on the map out here.
What are some of those new programs?
Well we have two basic programs: one is healthy food for life, for kids. As of the end of this school year we will have had some 7,000 kids go through the program. It’s for students in pre-K through 6th grade and it’s highly interactive with both parents and grandparents welcome. Kids love to be food detectives. That’s where there’s a major part of our effort, is bringing a generation of hope for our kids, they have the most to gain and they’re really the future of the community. At least, going forward, about 80 percent of our work will be related to kids. For adults, we have the wellness challenge, which is a six-week program where we get you to eat healthy foods and do a lot of physical activity. Sometimes we use the word vegan, but really it’s plant-based – it’s a 90 percent plant-based diet that we encourage. A tremendous part of our success has been the community’s response. In 2005 I had no idea what the reaction would be. And the reality is, in ten years, the outpouring of broad-based community operational and financial support has been outstanding. That’s markets getting food for the school products, the YMCA offering discounts on the fees, the doctors who were questioning what I was doing at the beginning are now recommending their patients come, with foundations giving us grants, Southampton Hospital giving us space and discounts on the blood tests. We say we’ve really created a wellness zone, and we’re really building a culture of health.
The Wellness Foundation is holding its fourth annual summer benefit on Saturday, June 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the private residence of Doug and Pat Mercer in East Hampton. Tickets cost $150 and are available at wfeh.org or by called (631) 329-2590.