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Nonprofit Leader Takes on Gym Deserts


Daily life can be a challenge for people living in Atlanta’s English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods.

For one, it’s tough to find access to healthy, affordable food in the low-income community, commonly known as The Bluff. But finding a place to be physically active also is difficult, as the community lacks safe spaces to exercise.

Enter Laura Pritchard.

Pritchard first came to The Bluff to do community service work in college, when she took a year-long break from her studies at the University of Virginia to coach a high school girls basketball team. She headed back to UVA, where she earned a graduate degree in exercise physiology and worked as strength and conditioning coach for the men’s tennis team.

But Pritchard’s time working in The Bluff stayed with her, and she decided to move back to Atlanta. There, she started formulating a plan to open a nonprofit gym that would serve the community, providing a safe place for children and their families to get active.

As she recalls to the Inside Track, Pritchard thought she would open the gym in her 50s, when she had a steady income stream (and access to friends with steady income streams). Instead, a local church offered up a renovated warehouse to open a gym serving local residents, and the twenty-something Pritchard sprung into action. “A pastor said neighbors were looking for a place to exercise, and it just kind of happened,” Pritchard says.

Donations and volunteers helped get the building into shape, and the Miami Dolphins even donated equipment. The gym, called Urban Perform, opened in January 2012. Today, residents can take zumba, circuit training and spinning classes at the gym for $2 a session. Local fitness instructors volunteer to teach the classes.

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Pritchard and her team also oversee youth fitness programs to help local children get physically active, including via a partnership with a local after-school program and a fitness-minded summer camp. On Sept. 22, six Urban Perform students even completed a triathlon.

“They completed it and loved it, and already are ready to train for one in the spring, which is really cool,” Pritchard says.

Urban Perform is one of just a handful of nonprofit gyms in the country, and running it poses some unique challenges, including just picking the right names for the classes.

While Zumba proved immediately popular among residents, Pritchard and her team found that people weren’t attending boot camp or spinning classes. They soon figured out that residents were intimidated by the term “boot camp” and had no idea what the term “spinning” even meant.

Once Urban Perform changed its class names to “circuit training” and “indoor cycling,” attendance increased.

Promoting the gym also was difficult at first, as staff found outreach efforts on Twitter and Facebook weren’t doing much to attract local residents, Pritchard says.

Pritchard and her team decided to print out old fashioned fliers, putting them in people’s mailboxes and posting them in centralized locations such as the local Post Office branch and pharmacy. Soon, residents were stopping by.

One woman, Pritchard recalls, decided to come by the gym about six weeks ago because she had just lost her job. The gym’s $2 classes fit her budget, and she thought that getting a little activity might help lift her spirits.

It worked. The woman recently found a new job — and she’s still coming to the gym.

“She now brings her sister, her mother, and they bring their friends,” Pritchard says. “To be able to provide her something in a time that can be so stressful… is really inspiring.”

Pritchard and her team continue to reach out to local residents, offering additional programs for children and classes for adults. She’s also heard from fitness buffs in cities across the country who hope to replicate her nonprofit model in their community.

“I think we’re on the front end of [understanding] that in these neighborhoods, this is something they need to grow and become a sustainable neighborhood,” she says. “In most places that are food deserts, they’re also gym deserts. If they don’t have food, they don’t have safe places to exercise.”