When Marlina Campos arrives to lead her group of neighborhood walkers in the Swegle neighborhood of east Salem, she brings bottles of water and hugs and kisses for everyone.  Many in her group speak only Spanish, and after greetings are exchanged the men and women, mothers with children in strollers and independent youngsters, start off together for a trek around the area, for companionship and good health.

“Why not start by engaging our neighbors in a healthy community activity!” Campos says.  “It’s great to meet new people.  We build relationships, a stronger community, we teach our kids the importance of being outdoors meeting people and make our community stronger – and by that, we hope, also safer!”

Campos’s group is one of the latest to join Just Walk Salem, a program begun in 2012 when psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner Jennifer Carley lost her walking partner and wanted to find a new one.  Carley’s humble start has branched out to 17 different walks that take place all over Salem, seven days a week.

All are welcome and all walks are free.

“I had heard about ‘Walk with a Doc,’ a program in Cleveland,” Carley says.  “I really prefer non-pharmacological treatment for health issues.  And, even when pharmacology is involved, people do much better with exercise.”

Carley is excited by the “eclectic groups of walkers” that have formed after people visit the Just Walk Salem website, including Campos’ Thursday night band.

Two of the groups are primarily Spanish-speaking; a Kaiser doctor leads the early Tuesday morning group; and Salem City Councilor Warren Bednarz leads one at Minto Brown Dog Park on Wednesdays.

Like many walk leaders, Campos knows her participants by name and says everyone encourages each other.  “Because most of these people have very low paying jobs, they can’t afford a gym membership, or even have transportation to get to one,” she says.  “And, not to mention, [they can’t] leave their children.  So our walk is family-friendly; kids, moms and dads can attend.”

Among the supporters for Just Walk Salem is City of Salem’s Neighborhood Services Specialist Annie Battee, who helps neighbors connect with resources who will help them develop ideas like Carley’s.  Battee walks with Carley’s group every Sunday morning and is excited to hear about groups like Campos’.   “Anyone with a good idea that wants to work to make their idea a reality can call to get information about how to begin pursuing their idea with the city,” Battee says.  “Just Walk Salem is a perfect example of this.  Jennifer’s good idea has become this amazing program.”

Skye Hibbard shows up for Campos’s walk, ready to go.  “Walking yields so many benefits for the health of people and communities,” she says.  Hibbard was hired this year to facilitate Just Walk Salem with a grant from Salem Health.   “This program in particular helps to reduce social isolation and makes people feel safer and more confident walking because they are part of a group,” she says.  “Regular walking groups also provide the motivation most of us need to keep walking.”

Hibbard says Just Walk Salem demonstrates that “even though we generally have a very car-based culture, walking is still something that people do every day, both to get places and for enjoyment.”  She’s an advocate of incorporating exercise into Salem residents’ daily habits.

“A lot of our walkers,” Campos says, “feel the need of stepping outdoors to get a breather from a stressful day at home with children and home routine.”   She likes how the practice of regular walking “teaches the kids our good old way of playing outside or exercising.”  Too many children “don’t want to go outdoors and play.  They’d rather stay inside focused on an electronic device.  We need to make the change and mobilize our community for healthier kids, futures and safer communities.”

Elizabeth Perez, wearing bright walking shoes and a big smile to Campos’s company says, “I’ve been with these guys three times now.  It’s an important group, because some of these women don’t exercise much.  It gives you a chance to get moving and also a chance to make friends.”

Participants in the groups frequently mention that friendships develop naturally with walking, and when a “regular” fails to show up – it is noticed.  “People show a commitment to each other, and that’s part of what keeps people going,” Carley says.  “A sense of community has developed.”

All of the Just Walk Salem leaders are volunteers.  “The program has grown from a seed of an idea and a few walks in south Salem to a citywide initiative,” Hibbard reflects, with ever-widening walkers.

“Since our 2015 kickoff (on National Walking Day in April,) the number of walking groups here has tripled. We now have up to four walks going per day, and they are spread across five of the six high school feeder areas and multiple neighborhoods. And we’re continuing to add new groups all the time!”

Carley is thrilled with the way her idea has changed Salem for the better.  “I am very interested in how the walks have welcomed and attracted a diverse group of people, and the support that is developing among walkers,” she says.

“If we feel good and we are healthy and living a healthy lifestyle,” Campos says, “our children will more likely have promising and bright futures ahead of them.”