Gwendolyn Winston Foster: Dialogue with Philadelphia’s Health and Fitness Czar

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native Gwendolyn Winston Foster has been a health educator for most of her life. She considered becoming a physician like her brothers, but decided that she would rather prevent disease than treat it. While raising her three young children, she moved to Loma Linda, California, where she earned a Master of Science in Public Health degree from Loma Linda University. She continues to serve on its board.

When in 1978 the Allegheny East Conference of Seventh-day Adventists elected Foster to serve as its Health Ministries director, she set a precedent by becoming the only full-time person in that position in the North American Division. Always willing to innovate, she developed Fitness for Life, a lifestyle reconditioning program that eventually became the basis for an annual two-week live-in program on the conference campus in Pine Forge, Pennsylvania. People came from all over the United States to participate in “Fitness Camp,” where she demonstrated dramatic results in helping people overcome chronic lifestyle diseases.

For five years Foster hosted a “Fitness for Life” call-in talk show that was broadcast on Philadelphia radio station WHAT. She also served as health editor of Message, an Adventist journal targeted to African-Americans. In addition, she developed a Lifestyle Certification program for lay people that was eventually adopted by the North American Division.

In February 2000, Mayor John Street of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an Adventist and lifelong friend of Foster’s, established the Office of Health and Fitness and appointed Foster the Health Czar. She oversees the health initiative “Fun, Fit & Free” that has transformed the city, which had formerly been dubbed the “Fattest City in the United States” by a national health magazine. People from all over the world have come to Philadelphia to see how Foster operates, and she has begun sharing her program model with other cities.

In addition to her passion for health, Foster loves music. She served for many years as music director for the Allegheny East Conference and has directed several outstanding choirs. Her production of Handel’s Messiah at her church, Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist in Philadelphia, is a favorite among music lovers on the Eastern seaboard.

How did your position, Health and Fitness Czar, come about?

In 1996, when John Street was president of the Philadelphia City Council, he said to me, “If I should run for mayor, I’d like you to do some health things in the city.” I said, “Yeah, right,” because I always saw myself retiring from the conference. He said, “Think about it.” I said to myself, “It will be three or four years before that happens,” so I almost forgot about it. Of course, he mentioned it again when he got elected. The position, Health Czar, developed because at first we discussed working within the Department of Health, but we thought better of that because it’s almost impossible to change their structure. What they do is so entrenched in tradition and policy that we couldn’t do anything exciting. As Health Czar, I’m accountable to the mayor, but I can work outside the box. Someone said, “You and the mayor are alike; both of you are unorthodox.” I said, “That’s right, we are.”

You have worked for the church most of your life, you came into this secular environment, and you’re a friend of the mayor. What was it like making the transition?

Scary. I had always worked in what I now say is the “safe” environment of the church. I had thought then that there were no challenges like the ones there. Now I feel that God was preparing me for these even greater challenges.

What particular challenges did you face?

I wasn’t prepared for the political challenges. It’s a whole different context: a dog-eat-dog world. Being a friend of the mayor—when he introduced me he said, “She’s like my sister”— doesn’t help in the political world. In fact, it almost hurts, because people are just waiting for an opportunity to see if you get a special break. We’ve decided that won’t happen. We have an understanding that there will be no special perks. If I get something, it will be because I earned it—not because I got any special favors.

How do you prepare yourself for the challenges?

I usually get up at 4:30, but this morning I got up even earlier, at 3:45. I have to spend a solid two hours every morning with the Lord. Part of that time is spent walking in the park near our home. The more challenges I face, the more time I have to spend with the Lord. If I miss a day, that’s when it’s scary. I say every day, “Lord, it’s going to be amazing today how You do things. How are You going to work this out?” It’s an adventure, but I have to spend the time with Him so I can know His plan. I’m not smart enough. I certainly don’t have the political savvy. People come to me and ask, “Where did you learn your politics?” I don’t have politics; I just listen to the Lord. That’s literally how I operate every day.

What’s another challenge?

We have zero dollars. We started this office with no dollars, zero, zippo, zilch. I had to raise the money for salaries to bring in my staff.

How did you raise the money?

I identified corporate partners. We meet every first Friday of the month, and we talk about how we want to flesh out our program. Of course I had a basic idea, having done it at the conference for 23 years, but I still make our partners an integral part of how the dollars come to the table. We don’t have anything left over, but we go do exciting things so people will think we have big budgets.

How big is your staff?

We have two secretaries; the city provided one and the other wanted to join our staff. I hired Kemba Esmond (formerly of the Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland), as my administrative assistant, and Melchior Monk (formerly of Pine Forge Academy, Pine Forge, Pennsylvania) as my liaison from this office; their salaries were raised by a local pharmaceutical company.

Is all of your staff Adventist?

No, but they are Christians. Everybody knows that I am a Seventh-day Adventist. Hardly any article written about me neglects to mention it. I always bring it up. Reporters ask, “Where did you get your ideas?” I didn’t make up the eight natural remedies, so I have to tell them my background.

How does your staff relate to your Sabbath observance?

You should hear the secretaries talking to people on the telephone when someone asks if I would lead out in a parade or a marathon on Sabbath. They say, ”Oh, that’s the Sabbath. Mrs. Foster doesn’t accept those kinds of engagements on Sabbath.” I let them go with it. If a church or hope to do those three times a year. In August, we had a program at a hospital auditorium for seven weeks, two nights a week. People didn’t think it would work, but out of the 70 people who came, 67 finished, and 31 never missed a night. That shows you how desperate people are. We plan those four times a year. We also have a 30-minute television show on Time Warner Cable that airs 7:30 a.m. and p.m., seven days a week. We also have events for the public. “Dine Out on Healthy Street” happens once a month, so local restaurants can show off their efforts at making healthy menus available. That’s the one time I get to see the mayor because our schedules are so busy. We just held our second annual Fun, Fit & Free Festival where the mayor and I led hundreds of Philadelphians on a three-mile walk from City Hall to the waterfront at Penn’s landing. Along with the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team co-owner Pat Croce, we created “76 Tons of Fun,” a weight-loss program for the whole city.

How do you share your faith in the secular environment in which you work and live?

I don’t have to preach. The principles I teach point to a Creator. Most people agree that an intelligent being had to come up with these principles. Everyone who goes through the programs is in more of a situation to hear the Creator. They ask, “What else have you got? We want to study the Bible with you.” We meet Muslims and others, but most religious values and principles are the same. I have no problem sharing my faith. I love it!

What advice would you give young people starting their careers in a secular environment?

You can witness in any arena. The best way is being out in the environment and living it. People are tired of hearing sermons; they want to see them. Every one has a circle of influence. You may have no idea that people are watching you.

Tell me some of your success stories.

A school nurse was going to have her leg amputated, but she needed to have it done before going back to school in September. She heard about our program and joined it. Of course, her diabetes was under control, her insulin dosage had been cut in half, and she got to keep her leg. I received a letter from a city worker who attended the seven-week program. He told me he lost eight pounds, and his waist measurement came down from 46 inches to 43 inches. He ended his letter by saying, “Thank you for your program. Thank you to our mayor for hiring a health czar.” Men’s Fitness magazine, which had designated Philadelphia as the fattest city in the U.S. in 2000, came back, walked with us, gave us this big plaque, and congratulated us for creating an awareness of health—the likes of which had never been created in the United States or around the world.

Interview by Vikki Montgomery. Vikki Montgomery is the associate editor of Liberty magazine. E-mail: For information on the health programs promoted by the city of Philadelphia, check its web site: or