Growing up, there was never any question about whether or not I would be able to play softball for my high school. I played co-ed tee ball when I was 8, then graduated to slow-pitch for a community center team in middle school, and finally moved on to fast-pitch at Roosevelt High School. I had my very own uniform with a bright green “22” on the back of my gold-and black-striped jersey and stretchy Kelly green pants.
Sure, I didn’t have the nicest mitt in the outfield and sometimes getting to and from practice or games was difficult with two working parents and no car to transport myself. But I never questioned that playing sports was something that would ever be out of reach for me or anybody else. That it was a privilege within itself. Until I heard about Upower.
Upower is a nonprofit organization that brings fitness activities, specifically CrossFit, to high school teens in underserved communities. For families living on low incomes, opportunities for physical activity can be few and far between. Not all teens can afford participation in club or varsity sports, so Upower partners agencies that serve youth and local schools with fitness outlets to offer this free afterschool program that focuses on improving physical fitness in a safe environment for youth.
This year, a guidance counselor at Roosevelt High School looking to recruit more teens for the program put Jill Beck, co-founder and coach at Upower, in contact with Joanna Tarr, Children’s Advocate for the youth living on our Sand Point Housing Campus. “Being able to work with someone who knows these kids as much as Joanna does enables us to make sure the kids are successful. That’s why the partnership is important,” says Jill.
Attendance is mandatory for students and coaches. The experienced fitness coaches – in which there are at least two in every class – act as mentors for the teens, so they’re expected to have a “90% attendance rate, which is the same as the students. When you can’t come to work, you don’t just NOT show up! We’ve established that with our kids. They want to be accountable,” says Jill.
When it comes to the instructors, “We expect them to develop those relationships with these kids. When they develop a relationship, talk a little bit of trash back and forth, then that’s great.” Jill earned her spot as a crowd favorite. “Jill was there, always on top of things, making sure you had a goal in the first place. I bonded a lot with Jill,” says Andrea Rodriguez Fabian, 16, one of the Roosevelt students living at Sand Point who participated in the program.
Another participant, Deiosha Sparks, 15, says of the coaches, “They don’t let you slack or anything. They make sure you have done something new each day. They let you do what you do best. And you’ll be coming home sore and sweaty but after that day you’ll be like, ‘Wow, did I just do that?’ You feel really good about yourself!” Even Joanna noticed the positive effects of the workouts. “They would come home every day a little sweaty, looking a little tired, but with big smiles on their faces.” Even though school is out for summer, those smiles were still present.
“They push you hard to reach your goals, and they try to make it fun, too. I had some trouble with the pull-ups but I managed to try it out and put myself out there,” says Andrea. Andrea started the program stepping onto a 12-inch box, but by the end of the program was jumping onto an 18-inch box! Deiosha says, “It made me reach higher for my goals. Because I’m very active, but I didn’t have a lot of upper body strength, so it made me push harder to try something new.” Like chest to bar pull-ups. “I had never gotten my chest all the way up so one day I did it and I was really excited.” Deiosha says excitedly, reliving the moment as she speaks.
The classes are designed to help kids maintain a healthy weight and develop healthy habits – lifting their physical confidence – which can positively affect their academic performance. Beyond the goals of physical fitness, the UPower classes use an inclusive approach: the belief that anyone can be an athlete, as long as they believe in themselves. And this belief can also have an impact on the mental health of teens. “It’s about cheering on other people,” says Jill. Obviously, it works. “My confidence,” Andrea smiles when I ask her what she gained from the program. Andrea also recognizes the intensity of the classes, but encourages others to participate if they have the opportunity. “At first it might seem hard, but by the end it’s all worth it for your own benefit,” she says. Deiosha nods in agreement. “It’s very positive because it makes you think you can do things you never thought you could do.”
In order to create that positive attitude in class, instructors focus on creating activities that are inclusive of all levels of fitness and socioeconomic backgrounds. “For example, we held a Nutrition Challenge in the spring. Our nutritionist didn’t make it about shopping at Whole Foods, because not everybody can afford that. The first week of our challenge was to substitute water for sugary beverages. That doesn’t cost you anything; that actually saves you money!” Jill explained.
Inclusion seems to be a common theme at Upower. Every new student is interviewed in order to get to know them and their ambitions, as well as any existing obstacles such as lack of workout attire, which is graciously donated to UPower by members of Northwest Crossfit (NWCF).“They feel normal when they’re not wearing ‘kind-of, sort-of’ workout clothes,” says Jill. The space is also donated by Jake Platt, NWCF owner.
Moving forward, Jill tells me that, “We look forward to expanding the partnership for the upcoming school year. We’re there to provide a positive place for these kids. We don’t know what’s going on with them or what challenges they have, but we reward good attitude and effort and pushing yourself to be better than what you were an hour earlier. We hope to act as a stepping stone that can help the kids break the cycle of poverty.”