For more than two decades, the Taking Off Pounds Sensibly Tellico Village chapter has given people a way to shed weight in the company of friends.

The local chapter was cofounded 25 years ago by Marie Decess and Mary Ann Clayton as part of a larger nationwide organization begun 1948. TOPS is a nonprofit, noncommercial network of weight-loss support groups and wellness education organization that offers programs and tools for healthy living and weight management.

“When I first moved to Tennessee, I had been a TOPS member since my first child was born and he’s 52 now and so first thing I looked for was a TOPS chapter. There was none available in Tellico Village or Lenoir City,” Decess said. “The closest one was Maryville, so I went over to visit it and I thought it was just a little bit far to drive. ... They told me if I could find six people we could have a chapter, because you need a leader, a co-leader, a secretary, a treasurer and a weight recorder and an assistant and we found all those. We applied for our charter and we got it and we’ve been up and running ever since.”

After about a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, members are now meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesdays at the Community Church at Tellico Village.

At each meeting, members weigh before saying a pledge and going into a program.

“We bring a lot of information into our chapter regarding sensible dieting,” Decess said. “We teach ourselves how to make good selections of what to eat, and don’t follow any specific diet but to learn to eat healthy and portion controls.”

The hope is with each meeting members are offered support and accountability. Clayton, who serves as group weight recorder, with a laugh said the accountability is “that stupid scale.”

“That’s what our programs are for, and then we just talk among one another and say, ‘This worked for me and this may work for you’,” she said. “In TOPS we don’t have just a set program for weight loss, because one program may be good for me but it wouldn’t be good for you. I mean, I can’t drink diet soda, other people can. I used to drink diet soda, a lot of it, but if I want to keep pounds off I just stay away from it. Just certain people allergies or whatever to different things and you just don’t know. That’s why we don’t say, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that’.”

Members are encouraged to go at their own pace to reach weight-loss goals.

For Clayton, that goal took her two decades to achieve, but she did it with others supporting her along the way.

“I know in my case you move here, you go to a lot of parties, you meet a lot of people, you eat a lot of food and pretty soon you’re ballooning,” she said. “Well, actually it took me 20 years to get to my goal weight. I mean, I’d get there real close and then I’d blow it again. I was never that far away but I just never got to that right point.”

Kathie Garzony has attended since the chapter’s formation. For about four or five years she has had the Keep Off Pounds Sensibly designation, or KOPS, having achieved her weight goal and a continuing effort to maintain it.

She can maintain the weight now without TOPS, but she still comes to support others.

“Obviously, I like the people to begin with, but they have things to share information each week and it helps you to come away with perhaps a new goal or a new determination to reach whatever it is you need to be doing,” Garzony said.

Susan Smith started attending in 2019 before the pandemic forced the group to shut down. Although she doesn’t have much experience in the group, she’s already seeing benefits.

“In 2019 it was for meeting new people because I was new to the Village, and people with similar interests and similar goals,” Smith said. “This is a very supportive group as far as achieving the same goal, which, of course, is a healthy lifestyle. ... A support network is a very big deal when you’re trying to achieve something that is difficult.”

Clayton agreed the group offers a chance to socialize.

“The closeness of the group,” she said. “I mean you can pick up the phone and call one of them and say, ‘Hey, I’m having a bad day. You got any suggestions?’ I don’t know if other groups do that or not, but we encourage it.”

For more information on how to join, contact Decess at 865-458-3703. She emphasized the program is for more than just Villagers.

“It’s a good social function. We do not serve food at our functions, sorry,” Decess said with a laugh.