Family, Faith, Fellowship, and Fitness

For Uchenna Jones ’02, ’09, it’s all about family.

As a labor and delivery nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, she helps start new families. And as the organizer of both the Madison Gospel 5K and the W1N Crew walking group and the cofounder of the Sole Sistas Run Madtown running group, she helps keep those families healthy.

“My whole thing is family health,” she says. “Look at all these programs that we have that say, ‘Okay, we have to focus on the kids.’ The kids are only as healthy as their parents. Then we have programs that focus on the men. Well, that man came from a mother and a father, right? Same thing for the mother, right? But if you look at the whole family unit, you would yield the biggest results.”

A Life-Changing Moment

Growing up the child of African immigrants in New York City, Jones was surrounded by diversity.

“People might think this is funny, but this is real: I didn’t meet white people until I was 16. That’s real,” she says.

Jones’s family moved to Milwaukee when she was in high school because her parents “wanted to show us a different way of life,” she says. She graduated from Rufus King High School and earned a scholarship to UW–Madison, where she hopped on the pre-med track.

Although Madison is the smallest town she’d ever lived in, she appreciated one thing about it that reminded her of home.

“One thing I love about [Madison] is the international appeal,” she says. “You’ll meet people in this one little town that you [would meet] maybe in New York, but not necessarily anywhere else.”

She attributes that largely to the university — which, she says, isn’t always appreciated as much as it should be, at least by the locals.

“People who live in Madison don’t have the same perspective, but [among] those who live outside of Madison, UW–Madison is very revered,” she says. “It’s held in high regard. So just saying that I went to UW–Madison, everybody’s eyeballs light up.”

After finishing her degree in 2002, she was happy to continue her education at the UW, in the graduate program in science education. Then, one night in February of 2003, everything changed.

Jones’s roommate in the east-side apartment they shared frantically woke her in the predawn hours — the downstairs apartment was on fire.

“It was pitch black,” Jones says. “I’ll never forget it.”

Unsure where the fire was or whether the stairs or front would be safe, she saw only one way out — the bedroom window. The jump may have saved her life, but it broke and partially shattered bones in her leg, which would ultimately require nine surgeries and five years of therapy to repair.

And it was during that ordeal that she knew she needed to become a nurse.

“It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me because I got to see health care from the perspective of a patient before I ever became a professional,” she says. “And I realized I wanted to be a nurse because the nurses knew exactly what I needed. I didn’t even have to ask. But the doctors, you know, they were only concerned about the diagnosis and fixing the situation. The nurse was concerned about my overall well-being, and that was the service I wanted to provide.”

The next year, in 2004, she started taking the prerequisites for nursing school and eventually got into the UW’s nursing program. She ended up earning a second bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2009.

Once she started her first nursing job at St. Clare’s Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin, she knew she also had to focus on her own health.

“I came out of nursing school the largest weight I’d ever been. I was over 350 pounds,” she recalls. “I gained a lot of weight from my leg being broken because I couldn’t move. Then I got married in 2012, had two more kids, and gained even more weight, so I was like, ‘This is not my life at all. This is not the life I want.’ I looked at the girl in the mirror, and I said I had to do something different. That’s when I started to learn how to run.”

Doctors had told her she’d never be able to run, that the most she could ever do was walk. But at the age of 37, she set out to defy them and set a goal to run — no matter how slowly — in 40 competitive races by the time she was 40. She reached that goal, with one of those 40 races being the Madison Marathon in November 2018. And she didn’t stop, finishing her 41st race just after she turned 40 this year.

Over the course of achieving that goal, she lost 110 pounds in the first 10 months — and made it a family affair.

“I’m not the only one in my family that lost weight. My husband lost. My kids, not that they needed to lose anything, they’ve maintained their weight, they’re a lot leaner, they’re a lot healthier, and now my kids are running,” she says. “This has a huge outcome for everybody when everybody makes an attempt to do something better. It’s not just the individual, but all those surrounding that individual are also impacted.”

That collective, family attitude is what prompted Jones to start a walking group in May 2018 and a running group earlier this year. The walking group, called W1N Crew, meets every Saturday year-round and includes anywhere from one to 15 people each week looking to get a little more fit. In addition, Jones, Marisa Flowers, and Rachelle Stone ’07 cofounded Sole Sistas Run Madtown, a running group, in April of this year. The group runs along John Nolen Drive every Sunday morning.

“People in the walking group with us, they’ve lost maybe 10 to 20 [pounds], or they went down a couple of dress sizes,” she says. “I noticed that their mental health was improving, job situations were looking up. They were going to the doctor more. There’s something to this whole community-based style of fitness. It’s not expensive, you just get together, be consistent, and then come out. So, I wanted to do something bigger.”

Through the walking and running groups, Jones hopes to help people understand that fitness isn’t all that complicated.

“People are concerned about their health, I feel like they just don’t know how to go about it, or they think, ‘I got to get a gym membership,’ ” she says. “They don’t realize all you have to do is put on sneakers and start walking. Get on the phone with a good girlfriend. Next thing you know, you’ll be walking for 30 minutes. Or if you can’t walk, you can get on a bike. There’s always something to do, but I think sometimes it’s being pointed in the right direction.”

Bringing It to Church

Through the inaugural Madison Gospel 5K, which took place on July 20, Jones hopes to bring her family-oriented, collective wellness approach to the black faith community.

“It’s not negating anybody else’s faith or excluding. I’m targeting people of color in the faith space. One, because it’s a very protected space. Two, most people in that space are very unhealthy,” she says. “I’m trying to go into this sacred space, see if I can get the accountability of the pastors, along with the congregation members and say, ‘Come on, let’s talk across this line. Let’s see how we can do better.’ It’s not just enough to be spiritually fed, but what about our physical bodies? How can we improve those physical bodies?”

With a couple hundred people on Madison’s south side, Jones and the Madison Gospel 5K committee held not only a 5K race, but a full-fledged health fair. The fair offered attendees information and connections to dental health, reproductive health, mental health, and much more — plus pre- and post-race yoga and massages, and a special run just for kids.

“I’m not trying to reinvent the wellness wheel. What I’m trying to do is tighten up the connections so that, as families, we can have the opportunity to participate in what the different organizations have to offer,” Jones says. “More strength in numbers, with a family model in mind.”

Another version of this article and full coverage of the 5K appear on Madison365.com.