If someone is unemployed or homeless, finding the money to belong to a gym can be a challenge.
Since time is often devoted toward searching for employment or a place to live, working out and staying healthy is not always a priority.
Enter UliftU, a non-profit organization that allows its members to use Crossfit Center City, on Chestnut Street between 12th and 13th Streets, free of charge.
However, the program does more than provide a gym for those who could not otherwise afford one.
“Our mission is to train to the homeless and unemployed for a career in the health and wellness industry,” executive director and founder Wylie Belasik said. “We have had tremendous success here…our members are getting out there and sharing their story, so they can connect with people in their community.”
Belasik uses the experience he gained as the former vice president of programming with BackOnMyFeet’s Philadelphia program to head up the daily operations of ULiftU.
After the completion of a nine-month program, members will take the level one CrossFit training certification exam, which is paid for by UliftU. The hope is that from there, participants will land stable jobs in the world of health and wellness and can pay it forward by assisting members of their own communities.
Filling this need for gainful employment, Belasik said, is one of the main foundations of the course.
“The health and wellness industry is a great place to start because it is an industry where your background doesn’t serve as much of a barrier as it does in other industries,” Belasik said.
According to the UliftU website, the program also pays members $10 per hour while they are training. Of that $10, $2 is held from their “paycheck” in a savings account that can access only after completing the program.
In addition, members also get a free monthly transpass which allows them to use public transportation to get to and from the gym. Another benefit is a nutritional food share membership, intended to help them make healthier eating choices.
“We really want this to change what health and wellness looks like in Philadelphia,” Belasik said. “There are a tremendous amount of gyms and fitness opportunities for people that live in Center City Philadelphia. There are not those opportunities for people that live in Southwest Philadelphia and North Philadelphia.
“Really our goal is to empower our members to be highly qualified,” Belasik continued. “And then not only be able to work in Center City but have our members go back to their communities and provide fitness opportunities where those hadn’t existed before.”
The program has been especially useful for those who have recently been released from jail and need to be assimilated back into society.
An example is Joseph “Jay” Burns who recently entered the program after spending time in a prison.
“I wrote to about every CrossFit gym in the city, basically looking to have my life as I transition from a federal institution to the street,” Burns said. “I just wanted to make sure that since I had been doing CrossFit for the last couple of years while I was away, I just wanted to surround myself with positive people and do something that I love.”
Burns got so into CrossFit that he actually taught it to other inmates and really grew to love the training style. Thanks to UliftU, he has a place to keep training and has learned that his technique had quite a bit of room for improvement.
Admittedly, life is different for Burns. After spending so much of his life in jail, the 41-year-old has to create a life for himself on the other side of bars.
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“I am looking for support where there really is no support,” Burns said. “My father is not around, my mother has dementia, and my sister is busy taking care of my mother. So there is really not a whole lot of support.
“When I come here everybody is real happy to see me. I am happy to be here, it is something that I love, something that I enjoy.”
CrossFit is just one type of certification, but it allows you to train regardless of what space you have available for use.
“We want to teach people how to be healthier and having our members being able to make a living doing that at the same time,” Belasik said. “We really think that CrossFit is a terrific way of getting a broad base of skills to be able to work with someone whether you have no weights, whether you are just doing bodyweight training. Everything in CrossFit is infinitely scalable and it is all functional movement.”
–Text, pictures and video by Aron Minkoff and Jamie Gray.
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