InnerCity Weightlifting: Raising the bar for at-risk youth

Photo: Chris Cardoza  / Doza Visuals

When Jon Feinman worked for AmeriCorps in 2005 he had an idea: use weightlifting as way to engage Boston’s inner city youth.

The idea worked, and soon he was getting the attention of some of the city’s most at risk kids. One in particular, Elexson Hercules, who was initiated into the MS-13 street gang, which is one of the most violent in Boston.

“They were there for me,” Hercules said about his fellow gang members in an interview with ESPN. “But then, when I used to go to jail, they weren’t there for nobody.”

Hercules perception of the streets began to change, he said he wanted to go to college, support his kids, and “be something in life.”

Feinman said his experience with Hercules inspired him, and in 2010 he founded InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW), and has been slashing street violence by getting at-risk youths, ages 15 to 24, off the streets, and onto a path where education, networking, and career goals are attainable, ever since. It all starts at a gym where youths come to lift weights and where socio-economic barriers break down.

“Communities, and families within these communities, are completely cut off by circumstances. They don’t have a network to work with, and the rest of society cannot reach out their hand,”  Feinman said.

Though Feinman said that the kids who come to InnerCity Weightlifting have to deal with the stigmas associated with growing up in the inner city, once you get to know them those misconceptions begin to fade away.

“They’re not these ruthless, violent people,” Feinman said. “They’re actually some great young people with a lot of potential.”

He said that listening to them is most important. “You have to know people as people,” Feinman said.

ICW now has 164 students, and that’s in addition to guests that the students sometimes bring with them to the gym, like friends and families, whom ICW also welcomes. However, it’s the students who get all the core benefits offered through ICW’s career track programs, which may involve earning a GED, and opportunities to network within the job fields of their dreams or becoming a licensed fitness trainer themselves.

The nonprofit help students study for fitness trainer certificates, and student trainers get to train clients with ICW’s staff coaches. Part of the effort is to build a bond between the student and the client. Clients can come from any neighborhood, job field, and social class. They get the same training package as they would at any other health fitness club, but the only difference is that with ICW they get to support the underlying mission to get kids off the streets and help improve communities.

“This type of approach where interaction happens can bring a positive outcome,” Feinman said. Student trainers also attend corporate training sessions that ICW offers to corporate offices looking to get their employees in shape. It’s all about creating a sustainable change.

Feiman’s brother, Josh Feinman, was among the first to join the ICW team. “If people who live across the street are told, ‘don’t go to that neighborhood,’ then the problem is just perpetuated,” Feinman said.

So far, the ICW staff and student trainers have trained more than 400 clients. “They actually know some young people so now they start crossing the street to say hi at where they are,” Feinman said about clients.

The brothers are looking to double their staff and recruit more students. Many are recruited through referrals from current students. When assessing whether or not a person fits the criteria for the program, ICW follows a set of safety procedures that benefit their staff and students. Before recruiting, the assessment involves meeting candidates outside of ICW’s two undisclosed gym locations. And it’s only after being recruited that a youth is told one of the locations.

“Before we start working with young people, we’re very candid in asking about rivalry. We make sure we never mix groups that can’t get along together,” Feinman said. To prevent the turning away of young people associated with conflicting gangs, the staff members will work with student trainers at a YMCA, health centers or community center while looking to open more gyms. “Opening up additional sites will allow us to start to serve some groups that we can’t serve,” Feinman said.

Currently, ICW has 20 full-time staff members, including Jeremy Sullivanis, who requested Spare Change not use his real name.

Unlike the rest of ICW’s staff members,  Sullivanis started off with ICW as a student trainer.

Sullivanis, 27,  is approaching his fifth anniversary with ICW. He trains clients five days a week in addition to training himself.

“I’m really into fitness now. I work out a lot. I work out every day,” he said. Lately, Sullivanis said he’s into calisthenics type exercises that involve body-weight training and minimal weight equipment. With the money he makes, he often goes on vacation in places like the Bahamas, Dominic Republic, Puerto Rico and Miami, to name a few.

Before his life at ICW, he’d been in and out of prison since he was 13 years old for drugs and gang violence. At 23, he was released and, through probation programs, found himself at ICW. What started off as weightlifting to pass the time and stay off the streets soon became his holistic way of living.

“I was opening up my mindset to things,” he said, explaining that the Feinman brothers had a lot to do with that. “Jon and Josh, they just stick to my side. They kept being by my side and being positive role models. They were on my case about doing good. They never really let me slip away.”

In addition to training clients, Sullivanis also works with young, at-risk students and student trainers who came through ICW, as he once did. “I’m trying to teach them that there’s more to life than the streets,” he said. He tries to show them that there are opportunities, which is something he doesn’t take for granted. “I don’t miss out on opportunity, especially coming from where I’ve come from.”

After having vacationed in many hot places, Sullivanis said that he one day hopes to live and work somewhere hot. If ICW expanded to a tropical state like Florida, he’d happily go there. “I just want to be free training in a tropical place and being around happy fitness people,” he said.

ICW shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to expanding in the Greater Boston Area, the ICW team is also looking to expand and reach out to prospective communities across the nation. This July, the team visited Philadelphia to gauge the nonprofit philanthropic community there and to see where ICW would fit in. Other cities they’re looking into are Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

“The activity we’re doing here creates that inclusive community we need more of in our city and society,” Feinman said. “We start to cross some of these lines, whether they are real or imaginary.”

Though ICW has helped steer many kids away from the streets and into their gyms, sometimes their past catches up with them.

For Elexson Hercules, the results were tragic.

In June 2012, Hercules and a group a friends were walking down  Bennington Street in East Boston to pick up food from a restaurant for his girlfriend when he stopped to talk to a group of four men, according to the Boston Globe. His friends kept walking, thinking nothing was wrong.

One of the friends said they heard him telling the men he didn’t want any problems, the Globe reported.

The men responded by stabbing Hercules five times, the Globe reported. He didn’t fight back.

His friends rushed to his aid, and attempted CPR, and begged him not to die, the Globe reported. His last word was “love.”

He was only 20-years-old at the time of his death, the Globe reported.

While most people are fortunate enough to have a network that will help them through their problems, Jon Feinman said his students don’t have that luxury. Hercules was a “great young person,” Feinman said, “But sadly, a lot of the students at ICW face the same dangers he did.”

despite those risks many kids are still choosing to sign up with ICW, and while they might not be escaping the streets, they are choosing to consider a different path, Feinman said.

“We’ve got 167 enrolled students, so we’ve got 167 success stories,” Feinman said.

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