Demetrius J. Willis: Serving the Underserved

Photograph by Alan Klehr

He always knew he wanted to help others, but Demetrius Willis, MS, MBA, RD, LDN, didn't have a clear vision of his future until he spent time with clinical dietitians at the oncology hospital where his mother was a registered nurse. Today, as senior dietitian and nutrition education coordinator for the Lake County Health Department W.I.C. program in Illinois, he designs programs that educate communities battling generational obesity and disease. "I am proud to say that I help serve the underserved," says Willis. "My work helps those who otherwise may go to sleep hungry and wake up with a saddened spirit. From teenage mothers to low-income 40-year-olds with gestational diabetes to undocumented immigrants, we reach out to each one with opportunities to improve health for the body and mind."

Tell us about your work.
When I first moved to Illinois, I could not find a job that I wanted. And I was frustrated because I thought, "dietitians are recession proof," yet for the first time, I was encountering closed doors. So I studied, spent time with myself and was patient. I felt that the job I was suppose to have wasn't ready for me yet. And then I applied for the supervisory position with the WIC program in Lake County. And this was it! My job allows me to not only empower clients, but to empower educators. I don't hold anything back, I have creative freedom and I try to use that freedom to the fullest.

What inspired you to undertake this work or project?
As a high school student, I would accompany my mother to work with her from time to time. She was a registered nurse at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and one week, I spent a few days with the dietitians at the hospital. It was there that I fell in love with this powerful world of nutrition. I saw some really saddened and ill patients smile when food came and observed how they would begin to gain their weight (and strength) back over time. Nutrition had a place in making a difference and I was ready to learn more.

Through my studies I learned that nutrition and exercise went hand-in-hand, so I sought graduate degrees in health and physical education and business. Later, as a military spouse, I learned that while a dietitian's job is not always readily available, it can be created. While stationed in Germany, I began working with the deployed soldier's spouses through stress management, nutrition and physical activity classes and consultations. A lot of this work was voluntary and I received an Army Commendation for its effect on the health and wellness of the military families on the base.

What is most rewarding about your efforts?
I love to teach, and I spend my time volunteering to give lectures, developing programs and simply educating. I have had opportunities to make more money, but I would rather make enough money and a big difference than make big money and little difference. When I educate others, it feels good to my spirit and that makes me happy. As an African American and a male, I have always been a double-minority in my field of study. But I don't see this as a disadvantage. I feel, 'Well, if I stick out and people are noticing me, then let's show them what I can really do.'

What about food, diet, nutrition or health drew you to this field?
I love how food is universal. As nutrition experts, I think we take our expansive knowledge for granted at times. Even the most basic information about vitamins, fat or carbs can be a treasure or a beam of light to someone who "never thought of it that way."

I also love the versatility of this field. For example, I recently visited a child abuse center and saw the wonderful things it is doing for these children trying to rebuild their little fractured spirits. Although that is not something I am trained in, I will be volunteering at the center by providing wellness in-services to the counseling staff. These are people who are highly susceptible to stress, poor wellness and compassion fatigue, and I will be teaching them how to manage stress, eat well and take care of themselves while they are taking care of these children. As dietitians, we just need to be open to an opportunity to make a difference.

Food & Nutrition Magazine
Food & Nutrition Magazine publishes articles on food and diet trends, highlights of nutrition research and resources, updates on public health issues and policy initiatives related to nutrition, and explorations of the cultural and social factors that shape Americans’ diets and health.