By Leah Weissman

Pilot staff writer

One by one, members of the weight-loss club TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) stepped onto the digital scale at their weekly meeting Thursday, and waited in anticipation to see if their avoidance of Valentine's Day chocolate paid off.

andquot;Every week we have a 'no-no' food and, if we eat it, we have to pay a fine,andquot; 32-year TOPS member Helen Wigginston said. andquot;And knowing you have to get on that scale every week is a good reminder not to eat fattening foods.andquot;

Last week's no-no food was, not too surprisingly, chocolate. With heart-shaped cocoa-induced goodies adorning the aisles of almost every grocery store last Thursday, many of the members ended up putting nickels, dimes and quarters in the No-No can for eating the week's naughty food.

Even so, the 35-plus members of TOPS chapter OR432 totaled a net loss of 2.8 pounds. Those who lost weight would ring a special bell to signify their accomplishment, and the entire room would erupt in applause.

andquot;TOPS is a support group more than anything else,andquot; Wigginston said. andquot;We are all here for the same reason, and we help each other when we can.andquot;

The nonprofit international club has chapters all over the world, including two in Brookings: OR432 and OR1116. More than 50 Brookings-Harbor residents, mostly women, and a few men, meet every Thursday or Monday to weigh in, exercise for 15 minutes, and participate in different weight-loss motivational programs and contests.

When it comes down to it, each member of TOPS is a personal success story.

Pat Gartzke joined the support group 32 years ago and lost more than 20 pounds. Because she was able to keep the weight off, she is a special member of KOPS (Keep Pounds Off Sensibly) - a section of TOPS reserved for members who reach their goal weight and maintain it. She is, in fact, the longest-standing KOPS member in her territory.

Since joining TOPS in 1976, Wigginston has lost more than 30 pounds and has been an on and off member of KOPS for about six years.

andquot;My husband and I had 23 years of retirement before his death in 1995, at which time I weight 163 pounds,andquot; she said. andquot;We traveled in a motor home for over 10 years, visiting a lot of southern relatives and their good cooking.

andquot;One of my sisters-in-law - her table groaned every meal,andquot; Wigginston added. andquot;She had a pet bull named Sonny Boy, and my husband would accuse her of trying to make him weigh as much as the bull.andquot;

According to Wigginston, each member of TOPS is assigned a specific weight by their personal doctor.

andquot;The doctor then puts (the weight) on a slip and sends it into TOPS headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconson,andquot; Wigginston said. andquot;When we reach that goal weight, we get to become a KOPS. It took me nearly 20 years, but it was worth it.andquot;

Unlike other weight-loss programs, TOPS is more about making life changes than dieting, 10-year member Jo Ann Querin said.

andquot;We make up attainable goals that members can feasibly reach ... .andquot; she said. andquot;We have guidebooks that offer various ways to lose weight - but really, it's your choice.andquot;

TOPS OR432 leader Gail Tausch said the lifestyle changes - whether they be eating habits, exercise habits, nutrition or personal motivation - make losing wait a bit easier because members don't feel the obligation to follow one set of guidelines.

andquot;It's their choice to partake of the information and tools made available to them, or just maintain accountability with the weekly weigh-in,andquot; Tausch said. andquot; ... You're going to step on that scale once a week, without ridicule or judgement, and receive support and encouragement in your weight-loss endeavors, no matter what.andquot;

To create incentive, the club has designed different charms and medals members can earn by reaching personal and club weight-loss goals. Weekly competitions also make weight-loss less of a struggle and more of a game.

For instance, everyone pays 10 cents every time they weigh in. At the end of the meeting, the money is given to the person(s) who lost the most weight for that week.

In the end, the members are really just a group of friends working toward the same goal, Wigginston said.

andquot;We pass around birthday cards when it's someone's birthday, or send a member a card if they're sick,andquot; she said. andquot;We take turns putting on different programs during the meetings and give each other encouragement.andquot;

The annual fee to join TOPS is $24, with a $3 monthly fee after that. The money always goes back into the club, and pays for chapter program materials and a monthly membership magazine.

TOPS chapter OR432 meets every Thursday from 8 to 10 a.m. at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church at 401 Fir St. TOPS chapter OR1115 meets every Monday from 8:30 to 10 a.m. at Evergreen Federal Bank at 850 Chetco Ave.

For information, contact Tausch at (541) 469-5668, or Lois Reed at (541) 469-3419.