Expanded gym in Rainier Valley fulfills big dream
Sili Kalepo grew up playing football in South Seattle and felt there were no decent gyms for residents of Rainier Valley, one of the city's...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sili Kalepo grew up playing football in South Seattle and felt there were no decent gyms for residents of Rainier Valley, one of the city's poorest areas.
About five years ago, Kalepo and a friend, Ryan Schmid, a former University of Oregon football player, started asking neighbors for donations.
The pitch: to start a gym with affordable rates that would encourage residents from different backgrounds to socialize and exercise regularly, combating obesity and diabetes — diseases that disproportionately afflict the poor and minorities.
Saturday they realized their dream in a big way: Rainier Health & Fitness unveiled its new modular facility at 7722 Rainier Ave. S., replacing a smaller pilot location farther north between South Orcas and South Findlay streets.
The new facility is about four times bigger, and the gym expects to quadruple its membership to 1,000 people and break even within a year. Its top rate is $19 a month and, for low-income members, $5 for 12 visits, Schmid said.
The gym stands apart from others in several ways: It grew out of a desire by local residents for a place to exercise.
About half of its members live below the poverty level. And a Christian social-service agency, Urban Impact, owns the venture and is partnering with other groups to offer wellness classes on-site.
"It's a way for people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different socioeconomic backgrounds to come together and break those barriers down through exercise," Kalepo said.
A third founder, Elisabeth Kingsley, came on board shortly after the gym opened at its pilot location.
The venture is a classic "social enterprise," a business that aims to address a social problem in a sustainable way, said Geoffrey Desa, an entrepreneurship researcher at the University of Washington's School of Business.
Saturday, dozens and dozens of gym members wearing bright orange shirts marched along Rainier Avenue South from the gym's pilot location behind a barber shop to the new one near South Holden Street. Passing motorists honked in support.
"You feel like a person when you come here," said Kim Thurman, a resident of the nearby Judkins Park neighborhood who joined the gym two years ago and walked 1.5 miles Saturday along the Rainier Avenue South route with her 13-year-old daughter, Taleia.
Adds Taleia: "Before, we did nothing. I couldn't walk for two minutes without getting out of breath."
Wally Jorgensen, 76, said he once had to drive to Tukwila to find an affordable gym. As a result, he rarely exercised. He goes to the Rainier Health gym four days a week now.
"I just feel better when I get finished," he said. "You sleep a lot better. The arthritis isn't as bad."
Schmid said that because he and Kalepo didn't want to deal with the paperwork and cost of forming a nonprofit organization to run the gym, they teamed up with an existing one. Northwest Urban Ministries adopted the gym in late 2003, and in fall 2005 the agency merged with Emerald City Outreach Ministries to form Urban Impact.
In addition to $76,000 Schmid raised from individuals, some paying monthly, the gym received start-up grants from two philanthropies and got a loan from the Emerald City Bible Fellowship church next door.
Thurman, the gym member who works out with her daughter, also belongs to that church.
The new gym, she said, "adds a homey feel to the neighborhood. It's not just 'Let's get your money,' it's 'How can we help you?' "
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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