Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Outside a renovated gas station at the corner of Sunset Avenue and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, a half-dozen women run through 45-second intervals of cardio exercises.
They run. They jump. They shore up their core for a full body workout.
Stephanie Tyson, 28, is hoping she can shed 85 pounds.
Losing weight would be a plus, but more than anything, Damaris Henderson, a 40-something HIV prevention specialist and counselor, just wants to get healthy.
Either way, the women say Urban Perform is the best thing that has come to this tired old neighborhood in a long while, and if it means improving their health and general appearance, even better.
The gym, which moved to Vine City in March from a nearby warehouse, is part of what seems to be a growing trend of nonprofits targeting residents in so-called food deserts, where there's not only little access to fresh, healthy and affordable food but virtually no safe or affordable exercise venues.
UP caters primarily to Vine City, English Avenue and Washington Park, majority African-American communities with high rates of obesity, hypertension and diabetes. With a three-year, $90,000 grant the gym received recently from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation, residents are hopeful those troubling health statistics will soon drop.
"These Westside neighborhoods are beset by a myriad of challenges, including high crime, unemployment and poverty, that prevent residents from eating healthy or getting proper exercise," said Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which has committed some $15 million to projects it hopes will improve the quality of life for Westside residents. "In addition to living in a food desert, they also live in a fitness desert."
UP, Fernandez said, is one of several ways the foundation hopes to transform the area into an oasis of healthy choices. As part of this mix, UP offers nutrition classes for kids and will host a farmers market this summer.
According to Laura Pritchard-Compton, founder and executive director of Urban Perform, residents had been asking for a safe place to exercise when she was approached by a local pastor to turn a church warehouse into a gym for the community's youths.
That was in May 2011.
Pritchard-Compton, who holds degrees in religious studies, kinesiology and exercise physiology from the University of Virginia, lives in nearby Washington Park.
In January 2012, she opened a gym in the church warehouse, focused primarily on the community's youth. Within a year, adults were wanting in, too. Urban Perform expanded to offer $2 group fitness classes for the entire family.
"The first two years, we served about 100 kids and families," Pritchard-Compton said. "Now after three months here, we've served 300-plus kids and families."
What makes the gym unique, she said, is the hour-long classes are offered six days a week at a flat $2 rate rather than on a sliding income scale like those offered at the YMCA. Residents can take the first class free of charge. For $15 a month, they get unlimited access to classes or pay $22 a month for access to both the gym and classes.
Tyson, who has lived in Vine City with her daughter Yannis for three years, said she discovered UP one morning while en route to her daughter's school, then one evening noticed a class in session.
"I said. 'That's where I need to be,' " she said.
Once the 28-year-old single mom stopped in for information, Tyson said she was out of excuses.
"The classes were inexpensive and so motivational," she said. "It made you feel good."
Tyson tried working out at a larger facility, but the fees, she said, were like "paying a car note."
Both she and Henderson have in some ways become unofficial recruiters for UP, encouraging siblings and co-workers to join them.
Tyson regularly works out with her daughter and a sister and brother now.
"I want to set a good example for my daughter," she said.
Henderson credits her niece with getting her off the coach and into the gym.
"I saw how motivated she was to come," she said. "Then when I came for the grand opening, I realized the benefit to the community."
Henderson said that coming to the small gym has been far less intimidating than going to a larger, more expensive facility.
"I didn't want to pay an expensive gym fee, and I didn't want to be in a large gym with a lot of skinny people," she said.
Although she lives in East Point, Henderson said she works in the community. Her decision to join UP, she said, hinged not on looking good but getting healthy.
"I'm not even thinking about weight," she said. "I have high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and my knees hurt, so I want to address my health issues more than anything. If I lose the weight, God bless America, but I'm tired of that fight."
Pritchard-Compton said making a difference in the community will mean addressing both the residents' diets and ability to exercise.
"Neither one will work by itself," she said.
Go to MyAJC.com/living for the latest on fitness topics and trends, including our look at 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney and his new focus on fitness for folks who are 50 and older.