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Larry H. Miller family and the U. launch 'Wellness Bus' to fight diabetes in underserved populations

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 145,000 adults in Utah suffer from diabetes, according to the Utah Department of Health.

For businesswoman Gail Miller, matriarch of the well-known philanthropic Utah family, the ailment is deeply personal.

"I can tell you firsthand that diabetes is a family illness. It affects everyone who loves you," Miller said as she and U. officials announced a new effort to help prevent diabetes in some of Utah's underserved communities.

That effort, a "Wellness Bus" decorated with colorful cartoons of smiling faces and healthy foods, will offer people in four communities with "free, fast and safe" chronic disease screening — including dental screening — nutrition education and wellness counseling, U. officials said.

The 40-foot, diesel-powered RV is a collaboration between the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation and University of Utah Health, with the participation of several community partners.

A small crowd gathered in front of Vivint Smart Home Arena on Monday to hear remarks, watch a ribbon-cutting ceremony, tour the bus and take part in wellness activities, including a Zumba dance session with Jazz team dancers.

During her remarks, Miller discussed how diabetes impacted her and her family after her late husband, Larry H. Miller, was diagnosed with the disease.

At first, "he was not willing to even accept that news. It took him a while to even tell me that he had it. And then to come to terms with the diagnosis, and even longer to begin the process of taking care of himself and the problems that come with diabetes," she said.

From then until he died in 2009, the disease "was ever-present in our lives," Miller explained.

"We as a family felt helpless to do anything for Larry except stand by and watch him suffer, and by doing so, we suffered with him," she said.

In November, the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation announced a $5.3 million gift to the University of Utah for the Miller family's "Driving out Diabetes" wellness initiative.

The Wellness Bus will visit four underserved communities in the Salt Lake Valley — Kearns, South Salt Lake, Glendale and Midvale — on a weekly basis.

"Defeating diabetes is truly one of the most challenging health concerns of our time," said Ruth Watkins, University of Utah president.

The illness can lead to blindness, kidney failure or limb amputations and is a major cause of heart disease and stroke, she said, adding that it can be "devastating" for underserved populations.

Dr. Robin Marcus, chief wellness officer for University of Utah Health, said officials designed the bus after gathering community input for several months. The Wellness Bus is modeled after a similar collaboration — the Family Van in Boston.

She said the four communities were chosen to benefit from the bus because "they have a high disease burden when it comes to diabetes, but also because they have the really important health infrastructure" where people can go to get additional care.

After getting screened, people can be referred to medical and social services within their communities, she said.

Four people will work on the Wellness Bus, all of whom speak more than one language, Marcus said. She added that for those who use the bus, visits will be "private" and "culturally sensitive."

"We plan to establish relationships in these communities, and hopefully people will learn that we're going to be there every week, rain or shine," Marcus said.

Philanthropist Pamela Atkinson, an audience member at the event, praised the project and told the Deseret News that it could "change people's lives."

"I just love the fact that Utahns like to work together to achieve so much for other people. I never have trouble getting volunteers, sometimes too many. …Utah is different," she said.

The love of giving in the Beehive State is "contagious," Atkinson added.