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Last Sunday Melissa Williams ’06 was lounging in her California apartment when her mother burst in with plans for a walk, an ab workout, and a leg workout. No, Williams’ mother is not a fitness instructor. She’s just excited about training for a longer walk that her daughter has planned, one that will raise money to support diabetes awareness and prevention—and last about six months. From January through June 2010, Williams (joined frequently by her mother) will be walking from San Diego up along the coast to San Francisco, and then heading east through wine country to Sacramento.

Slice recently asked Williams about the walk and MIT’s involvement with it. Interview below:

Slice: Why did you start the California Wellness Walk? What motivated you to get involved with diabetes awareness and prevention?

MW: The walk started as an interesting idea last fall. I work as a healthcare consultant helping pharmaceutical companies make better investments. In one project, I worked with a talented team to model diabetes, and the results of the model scared me into action. Diabetes is unique—prevalence is skyrocketing, but at the same time, healthy lifestyle choices significantly reduce your risk of diabetes. With a lifetime of obesity and a family of diabetics, I was well on my way to becoming a diabetic myself, but healthy habits and weight loss could change that future. I realized that I needed to change, and in the process of getting healthy, I wanted to help inspire others. From there, the Walk was born. Growing up I was the fat kid who couldn’t run a mile to save her life. Now at 24, I’m walking from San Diego to Sacramento showing by example that you can make a positive change in yourself.

Slice: What is MIT’s role?

MW: MIT has been a large part of the success of this project. While a Biology undergrad, I volunteered with Keys to Empowering Youth. KEYs brings together 11-13 year old girls in workshops with college girls to encourage interest in science and engineering. It was an amazing experience mentoring these girls month after month and watching their excitement and interest grow, and that experience formed the foundation of the classroom workshops with the Walk. Just as we were encouraging interest in science and engineering in KEYs, I would like to encourage healthy habits through the Walk workshops.

While at MIT, I also worked at the Public Service Center, and when I came up with the idea for the Walk, I contacted Sally Susnowitz to get her opinion. Since then, Sally has been a wonderful mentor and coach, and the walk would not be where it is without her. Add in my friends from MIT who have all pitched into the planning, and MIT has been instrumental in the Walk.

Slice: Whom will you be walking with?

MW: I will walk the full 750 miles and be joined at different stages by fellow walkers. My mother is walking for the majority of the Walk, Cate Smith  ’06 is walking in April after receiving her MD, and others are pitching in for other weeks and long-weekends. It’s a diverse group and we’re all committed to improving our health and the health of others.

Slice: How have people responded to your project?

MW: Throughout the planning, we’ve had an amazing outpouring of support. I have been consistently amazed at the time that people have devoted to the Walk and the commitment they have shown through connecting us with their friends and coworkers. Through planning the Walk, I’ve had the opportunity to meet countless interesting people and the reactions have been consistently positive – though sometimes completely disbelieving! “You’re walking how far?!”

Slice: MIT alumni will be hosting you along the way. How did you find the alumni hosts?

MW: We’ve worked closely with the listings on the Alumni Association’s Infinite Connection. There are over 5000 alumni along the route! We’re currently conducting our first wave of outreach and are optimistic from our early responses.

Learn more about the walk on Melissa’s blog, or follow her Twitter feed. Donations are accepted through her CA Wellness Walk Web site.