Members of the Philomath TOPS group meet each Monday morning at Peace Lutheran Church. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The tempting pull toward sugar-charged sweets and high-calorie cuisine can challenge the best intentions in people who want to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle.

Avoiding the drive-through at a fast-food restaurant on a day when time is short, focusing on the right items while pushing a cart through the grocery store aisle and ignoring the enticing commercials that want you to believe that chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is something you really need in your freezer — all examples of what a person can face on a day-to-day basis.

Every Monday morning in Philomath, a group of individuals get together to try to work their way through such challenges while shedding pounds. It’s the Philomath chapter of TOPS — an acronym for “take off pounds sensibly.”

“I would say, ‘we’re here for you — please feel comfortable in coming forward,’” chapter leader Jani Burton said when asked what message she wants to get out there to folks who might be considering TOPS. “‘Don’t be afraid to open up and let us know what your feelings are and if there’s anything that we can do to help or support you, we’ll help get you through it and help get you started on a good path.’”

Burton knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the benefits of TOPS. She’s been involved with the organization for close to 30 years now.

“The gals are just great … they’re there for you and they’re a phone call away if you’re feeling down and out and need some support,” Burton said. “If they want that candy bar and say ‘I know I shouldn’t have that,’ they can call somebody. It doesn’t happen a whole lot but we’re just there for each other. It means a lot to have these gals stand behind you.”

Philomath TOPS Chapter 575 is open to all and meets at 9 a.m. Mondays at Peace Lutheran Church (2540 Applegate St.) except in years when Christmas and New Year’s falls on a Monday (which they will in 2023). Meetings may also not happen if there is poor weather. Part of the weekly routine is to step on a scale prior to the meeting’s start time, so the designated “weight recorder” is on site beginning at 8:35 a.m.

“There’s no strings attached to it and it’s very comfortable,” TOPS member Carol Leach said before this week’s meeting. “It’s just a fun group to be with and there’s support in many different ways from all of the different members.”

The Philomath chapter currently has 13 members.

A Philomath TOPS member weighs in Monday morning. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Leach said she first got involved with TOPS around 2015 when a member that she swam with at the local pool talked about its benefits. She ended up stepping away for a stretch to help care for her mother but rejoined in 2019. Motivation has been the biggest benefit along with the support through what she calls a special community.

“I decided that’s just what I need,” Leach said. “To know that I’m going to go weigh in every Monday morning, that’s what has really helped me to lose weight. Everybody’s so supportive.”

Leach said she remembers speaking to the group in 1996 about using Clemens Community Pool for exercise. She didn’t join at the time but in later years realized it was something that she needed.

“I needed a support group that was close and easy to do — that’s probably what’s least intimidating is the fact that it’s really easy to do,” Leach said. “Even if you don’t have time to stay for the meeting, just come in and weigh and go and do whatever you need to do. It doesn’t fill up your schedule or anything — it’s there all the time.”

Barbara Masinter, who serves as the weight recorder, has been involved with TOPS since 1988 when she first joined while in Bend. She’s attended Philomath meetings for the past 21 years.

“When I was in Bend, a friend of mine joined and so she talked me into joining with her,” Masinter said. “She wavered back and forth and she finally quit … but I could tell by listening to the programs that we give that I was on the wrong track. I needed that accountability and so I stuck with it all these years. It’s coming off slowly but at least it’s coming off.”

Burton explained that the group does not endorse any particular diet.

“We feel that for every person that has a weight problem, it’s between them and their doctor,” she said. “We do not sell food, we don’t sell anything.”

TOPS, a nonprofit organization, has an annual membership fee that starts at $49 and then there are chapter dues of $5 per month. Burton said the monthly dues help cover any expenses, such as the awards that are periodically presented to members.

“So, it’s a very reasonable, very affordable organization,” Burton said.

To begin each meeting, the members recite the TOPS pledge:

“I am an intelligent person. I will control my emotions, not let my emotions control me. Every time I am tempted to use food to satisfy my frustrated desires, build up my injured ego, or dull my senses, I will remember — I will take off pounds sensibly.”

TOPS is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In January 1948, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, woman named Esther Manz established the organization with the idea of providing support to help those toward thinner figures and better health. Through the years, TOPS has helped millions of people around the world take off and keep off pounds sensibly.

Said Burton, “In the 75 years, there’s only been five presidents of the entire organization … so that kind of tells you that they stick around.”

Philomath TOPS leader Jani Burton made this banner that was carried in the 1993 Philomath Frolic & Rodeo Parade by Sharen Syriotis, left, and Carolyn Lackey. (Photo provided by Philomath TOPS)

The local chapter appears to have been established in 1971. The group was called the “Phil-Up-Less TOPS of Philomath” that first year with Marilyn Borton installed as leader and Linda Beaver as co-leader. Others elected that first year were LaVonne Knutson (secretary), Tammy Smith (treasurer) and Dottie Smith (weight recorder).

Masinter said the group is all about encouragement. She shared the story of a member, who has since passed away, as an example of how the group can help someone. This particular person weighed close to 300 pounds when joining TOPS and took off 100-plus pounds.

“She was just over 175 when she passed away so she took it all off and was very faithful about coming,” Masinter said. “It’s the support, you know, the support group that does it.”

Masinter said she got down to a targeted weight and although she wants to lose more to reach her goal, it’s not a situation where she’s seeing pounds coming back on.

“I might weigh the same every Monday for a month but I don’t care, it’s not that,” she said. “If it goes down, that’s perfect, so that’s my goal. I’m not quite at my goal just yet but I’m close.”

Burton said involvement in TOPS keeps her accountable although she has not yet reached her weight loss goal. Those who do reach their goal, a weight established between a participant and their doctor, transition into KOPS, an acronym for Keep Off Pounds Sensibly.

“I think there’s a weight program for everyone, it’s just what their choice is,” Masinter said. “You can do it on your own or you have to pick the right one (program) for you. The only way you will know is if you come and try it.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.