Walk With a Doc expanding Columbus footprint at 4 local parks

Carrie Ghose

Staff reporter- Business First

From a single walk in Highbanks Metro Park in 2005, the Walk With a Doc program has grown to more than 100 regular events spread across four countries.

Yet while there’s now a walk in Moscow, the nonprofit has grown to just two events in Central Ohio. That changes in September, when four new walks step off in Columbus city parks. In time, founder Dr. David Sabgir wants 30 to 50 regular walks in Central Ohio.

“It will be a model for the country,” said Sabgir, a Columbus cardiologist who announced the program’s local expansion Thursday in the keynote address at Columbus Business First’s Health Care Heroes awards. Both he and the nonprofit’s executive director, Kathryn Stephens, are past honorees and Stephens was a Forty Under 40 honoree this year.

A short item in the June-July issue of AARP’s magazine has resulted in a flood of calls.

“We’re getting calls from L.A., Chicago, you name it, asking how do we integrate this in the urban community?” Sabgir said.

Walk With a Doc recently added its second paid employee, and has local partners to coordinate events when it expands the model to other cities. That hadn’t happened yet in Columbus, until Sabgir’s employer, Mount Carmel Health System “gave us a home” in 2010, shortly after the Columbus system acquired the cardiology group in which he practices.

A broad coalition is making the expansion happen, including three city of Columbus departments: Parks, Public Health and Public Safety. Public Health is hiring a coordinator. Mount Carmel is providing the volunteer physicians to speak for 5-10 minutes to kick of the walks and then take questions, and sending its mobile outreach clinic once monthly to each site, spokesman Jason Koma said. YMCA of Central Ohio also is providing volunteers, and Columbus Medical Association and its foundation are donating money.

The parks are Woodward on the north side, Rhodes on the east side, Indian Mound on the south side and Big Walnut on the east side. Betsy Pandora, the city’s Healthy Places coordinator, said the locations were determined to cover neighborhoods where health data showed the highest need. The city asked residents’ advice on parks where they like to walk, she said, and the park had to have a recreation center for indoor winter walks.

Dr. Teresa Long, city health commissioner, said the department has long wanted to expand walking programs. It produces neighborhood walking maps, but Walk With a Doc fills a huge gap.

“The most important thing is having that support and social interaction,” Long said. “This is an opportunity to really reach in and get to some of our more vulnerable communities that haven’t been able to participate.”

To celebrate the partnership, Long is leading this Saturday’s walk at Highbanks.

The expansion and the model it will create to replicate the program in other urban settings could be key to the group’s future. Last year Walk With a Doc’s parent nonprofit, New Albany-based Just Walk Inc., had grants of $168,000 and expenses of $252,000, which reduced its total net assets to $55,500. Nearly all of its support is from insurer Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Ohio.

Sabgir, who does not take a salary, confirmed to me that the influx of support for the city walks will not quite bring the group to break-even. However, he said the group is in talks with large national retail chains that might be interested in sponsorships once the program hits a critical mass of events.