Carmela Heard stands in front of a group of women ranging in ages from 40 to 80, stretching her arms high over her head, leaning far over to her right. In a soothing soft voice, she encourages the women to push their limits, something a strong woman would do.
Carmela is the epitome of a strong woman as an instructor of the StrongWomen program.
She learned about the StrongWomen program through another fitness instructor and decided she wanted to get involved.
Carmela has been a fitness instructor since 1978 and believes in the importance of being fit. Retiring in 2008 from the educational profession, she believed more strongly than ever the importance of being physically and nutritionally fit for the older woman.
"When I retired, I wanted to be able to get more women over the age of 40 in our community involved in a fitness regime. The StrongWomen program does that," says this Kunkletown resident.
She wanted to offer it in a way to reach the most women possible. Western Pocono Community Library is a community hub, especially for the senior population and churches have so many women volunteers that they seemed like the perfect places to hold classes.
Currently, there is a StrongWomen class held Tuesdays and Thursdays at WPCL and Mondays and Wednesdays at Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Trachsville.
"The program is very successful. The women are very actively involved in their physical well-being and nutrition and how they eat. We want to share what we learn with the community about wellness, nutrition and healthier lifestyle..
Carmela was born and raised in Rosetto, Pennsylvania. An active and energetic youngster, she credits her mother and Jack LaLanne for her inspiration to stay fit.
"One morning in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, my mother woke me up and said we were going to exercise with Jack LaLanne. And we did, every morning. Heart failure and disease ran on my mom's side of the family and she was determined we were going to fight against it," says Carmela.
In 9th grade she became a cheerleader and was a member of the volleyball team. She biked, hiked and backpacked. She graduated from Pius X High School and then from Temple University. She earned a Master's Degree in Educational/Industrial Education.
She had been a teacher for 15 years, an education administrator for another 15 years at Career Institute of Technology in Easton.
Once she began working, she didn't have the time she had for a lot of her favorite activities and so she started working out at a fitness center. In 1978, she became a fitness instructor. She is certified to teach yoga, zumba, aquatic and aerobics. When she isn't teaching fitness, she and her husband, Tom, love to hike, walk and travel. She enjoys baking and gives 90 percent of it away, like at the concession stand for the Jim Thorpe Opera House, where they both volunteer their time.
The StrongWomen program in the West End has become so successful that when the originator of the national program, Dr. Miriam Nelson of Tufts University, decided to visit eight of all the programs across the country, and with 37 in Pennsylvania alone, the West End was one of the chosen eight, a high honor indeed.
Dr. Nelson's tour was about helping people become aware of how social networking can bring about awareness of the importance of nutrition and physical activity. Dawn Olson, then the Extension Educator at Penn State Extension and coordinator of the Monroe County StrongWomen program, asked Carmela if they should apply and she thought it was a wonderful idea. When she learned Dr. Nelson had picked their program to visit, Carmela was "absolutely thrilled." Dr. Nelson and her team spent three days learning about the West End's StrongWoman program and the West End Change Club was born.
Dr. Nelson was interviewed by NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams and Dr. Nancy Snyderman, she was who else they could interview that would represent StrongWoman and who lives a healthy lifestyle of nutrition and exercise.
"When she came to visit, we really bonded and so she said she immediately thought of me. I was in awe of that," she says.
The segment was featured on May 29 on the 6:30 p.m. NBC Nightly News and Carmela and other participants of the program were featured from her 9 a.m. stretching class to her 10:30 a.m. strength training class. It focused on the benefits of women maintaining an exercise program through their adult life and about motivation to keep strong and exercise in older life, including eating well and exercise.
She never could have imagined how that would impact her life.
"Here was my opportunity to reach as many women as I could, not only in my community, but across the country. That was beyond what I could have imagined."
Her Facebook became bombarded with an outreach from not only old high school and college friends but also from women she never knew before with messages about how she was an inspiration.
"I'm retired teacher. I want to stay healthy. I do aqua aerobics three times a week, zumba one hour a week, full-fledge yoga once a week and now StrongWomen three hours a week. Believe it or not, I've compacted my hips and butt. You need a good instructor and Carmela is it," says Judy Nansteel, 60.
"Carmela is wonderful. She adapts for people who have had hip and knee replacements. She's an excellent person. It's like having your own personal trainer. It's better than going to a gym and I love being around the other women," says Nansteel.
Another participant, Elaine Mason says that the program is great because there aren't a lot of programs out there for women over 40.
Caroline Andrews of Palmerton says she joined StrongWomen to keep in shape. "I love it. It's like recess in school. It boosts my mood."
Doris Afeltra of Tunkhannock says the classes makes her more flexible, helping her in bending and lifting. "I've noticed a big difference since I joined."
Pat Reilly of Brodheadsville says she originally came to increase her flexibility. "I was too sedentary at home. I'm not only more flexible but I enjoy the comradery and the strength training have become a bonus."
If Carmela could get one message across to all women everywhere, it would be, "If you want to take advantage of life, do what you have to do to be able to enjoy it. Maintain a healthy lifestyle so you can live your life to the fullest.