Jon Feinman is determined to keep young Boston area at-risk young people alive and out of prison. And he’s doing it by teaching them weightlifting.
Through discipline, training and the relationship between student and coach, weightlifting strengthens the bodies and minds of these young men to resist the negative influence of the street and to leave their gangs. And for some, it may lead to a job as a personal trainer.
A young student who Feinman met when he was an AmeriCorps volunteer at a K-8 school in east Boston set him on the path he now pursues. That student was Elexson Hercules, and his story epitomized what Feinman is trying to achieve. But it’s a story that ended way too soon.
Feinman had taken up weight training to be able to effectively compete in soccer as a 5’2”, 118-pound college student and later used weightlifting as a way to relate to Elexson and his friends. “I realized that weightlifting could get them off the streets. It could accomplish a greater social goal,” he says.
After AmeriCorps Feinman became a personal trainer earning six figures but couldn’t get Elexson out of his head. He enrolled in the Babson College MBA program to gain the knowledge and skills to create a nonprofit, and during his last semester put together a startup version of InnerCity Weightlifting, the organization he founded in 2010 and now runs
Elexson Hercules was his first student. Although stabbed to death in June 2012, the victim of the sort of violence that Feinman wants to end, Elexson still serves as the inspiration for InnerCity Weightlifting, just as he did from the start.
InnerCity Weightlifting now has 119 enrolled students. They generally range in age from 16 to 24 years old, but one student was a 12-year-old who’s been involved in three armed robberies and others are older. Most of them have been in prison and roughly 30 percent end up back there.
“It is because we are so focused on young people who are the most difficult to reach and are most likely to go back to jail. Just because we’re working with someone today doesn’t mean it will change what they will do tomorrow. It’ s a long process,” Feinman says. It takes an average of six months to convince a prospective student to join the program.
And because of their gang or former gang affiliation, everything the students do can be dangerous. In order to make sure that they can make it safely to the gym, Feinman and his staff pick them up. And the location of the gym is only known to people associated with the organization.
Every minute in the gym is a good minute, according to Feinman. The weight-training program is structured around each individual. Volunteer tutors help those who would like to finish their GEDs.
The staff and volunteers work with them on various needs like getting a driver permits or license, and, if they desperately need money, help them find a job. But personal training is the career track that it owns as an organization.
Eighteen students are in that career track. They meet twice a week to go over the National Academy of Sports Medicine personal training certification material. InnerCity Weightlifting finds clients who come to be trained at the gym, some traveling as much as an hour and a half to get there. The students are supervised by a coach and are paid $20 per hour.
“As we get more and more people into our gym, they leave not just with a workout but with a story as well. The clients end up learning how extreme the barriers are that our students are facing. It leads to increased understanding as to why their situation is happening, and there’s a chance for a change in attitude,” says Feinman.
The lessons are not lost on those clients. Many of them show up for students’ court appearances, write them letters and visit them in prison. Some have even offered internships.
In order to give the students even more experience as trainers, InnerCity Weightlifting takes them to Microsoft and other companies, where they train employees onsite. This not only offers students a way to make money but also pays the coaches and provides the organization an income stream which supplements the government grants and donations it receives.
Feinman hopes to replicate his organization nationwide with the end goal of ending coordinated youth violence wherever possible.
“What’s made the gym so special is it brings people together from different ways of life. And they start to understand our students for who they are not what they’ve done,” he says.