LONG BEACH, Calif. — Ten years ago, when Bakeisha McCall was 400 pounds, she thought she’d take a job as a political canvasser in the north Hollywood Hills.

It was a small step toward a lifestyle change that would reshape how she thought of fitness and food, pushing her toward a new passion that would become her life. She had just moved from Albany, New York.

But the early returns on her new weekend job were mixed.

“I was worried about her,” said Jimmy Camp, a partner with political campaigning firm Silver Streak Communications, who hired her for that campaign and many others in the years that followed.

“I said to her, ‘You’re going to have to walk five or six miles and go up hills,’” he said. “And she was like ‘Nope, I got this.’”

The days were hard, the following mornings an endurance test. Pained muscles clenched in her feet, legs and back. And the work itself was draining, knocking on doors all day, selling people a political message they might not want, or even be openly hostile toward. She didn’t care about politics. She just wanted to be out in her new home state and meet people.

“Most of us don’t talk to that many people a day — to 50 people a day. And I think it gives you certain conversational skills and you learn what presses their buttons,” Camp said. “It takes a certain skill set to do. It’s hard, it gets old. Nobody likes to get rejected, and there’s a lot of rejection.”

When McCall talks, a laugh often follows after a few beats, projecting an ease with conversation and people. In most ways, the job was about her health and scaling back the weight that had become a dangerous health risk. But it was also an education in listening, and getting through to people who might not want to listen.

The first weekend of work wasn’t easy.

“I remember thinking to myself, 'What have I [gotten] myself into?'” she said. “I was hot, and I was sweating, and was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

But McCall, who lives in Long Beach, settled into a routine and found the weekdays between canvassing jobs were enough recovery time.

The weight came off slowly, unlike many fit-quick schemes that promise life-changing results in months. For McCall, it took years — four years to lose the bulk of the weight. In the first year, it was about 100 pounds lost through walking and small changes like bringing a lunch to work to avoid buying fast food or other convenient, less nutritious options.

It was about establishing habits.

“People don’t understand that if you don’t keep up with that program or have a meal plan your body can adapt to, then you’re going to put that weight back on,” she said.

Once those habits were built, she began going to the gym, and once she saw trainers in action, she thought, “I can do that.”

Her studies began with questions and conversations like the ones she had on doorsteps of strangers’ homes, then certifications and, in 2018, her own small business. Better Body By Bk became her letterhead, and clients that resembled what she had been at the beginning of her journey took notice.

McCall, 37, now has about 10 clients, a number that usually rises in the summer. Many of them are overweight or obese women, like she was, who are drawn by her story, and the physical evidence of someone who has successfully lost weight and kept it off.

“They see themselves in me and they say, 'If she can do it, I can do it.' I come from where they come from: emotional eating or stress eating and looking for a plan that will work,” she said. 

They can start by moving — anything that will start new habits and block out old ones. 

“We’re not just standing there telling them what to do. We’re studying them," she said. "We know where their stop point is and how far we can push them. We also remind them of their goals: 'Hey remember, you wanted this.' And we push them.”

The journey still isn’t over for McCall, and sometimes, there are setbacks, like during the pandemic when she put 15 pounds back on. But the habits are there, and so are her goals, like hitting 170 pounds and building a packed schedule of year-round clients. She’s on her way. The pandemic slowed down plans but forced her to invest in her own equipment and search out new workout areas like parks or clients’ garages. If she could make it work, then so could they.

McCall tells her clients — the 23-year-olds, the 76-year-olds, anyone who needs to hear it — her story, and they start to see a new one for themselves. They see the beginning of a journey that may save their lives and bring them new freedom.

“You can be a bright light in a dark place,” she said.