By Sam Bojarski

Fitness gyms might be one of the last businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many people struggling to find the motivation for a workout. 

But the Brooklyn-based Haitian-American Community Coalition (HCC) has addressed that problem, with virtual programming designed to keep residents of New York and beyond fit during the pandemic. 

“I think the entire fitness community has pretty much shifted to virtual classes, and having those virtual classes set weekly definitely helps people incorporate that into their schedule. They have something to look forward to,” said Kristina Lewis, fitness instructor who teaches classes part-time for HCC’s FITBK program. 

Prior to the pandemic, HCC held fitness classes at churches and various other community centers throughout Brooklyn. With the limits on in-person gatherings and shutdown orders, these classes have gone virtual, often reaching hundreds of participants each week. To support FITBK’s programming, Brooklyn Communities Collaborative has awarded HCC a $50,000 grant, through its Strong Communities Fund. 

Fitness instructor Kristina Lewis leads a FITBK virtual fitness class on July 14. Photo by Leonardo March

The FITBK program, which HCC has offered for seven years, is technically free. But the program typically depends on donations from participants. 

“This particular funding from the Brooklyn Communities Collaborative will allow us to continue doing what we’re doing right now and extend it to provide even more mental health services and referrals to people who take our classes,” Spencer Casseus, HCC director of development, community affairs and partnerships, said. 

HCC’s other services depend on funding from state and local government, along with local foundations and in-kind sponsorship.

While HCC serves anybody that walks through its doors, more than 90 percent of the people the organization serves trace their roots to the Caribbean, according to Fuljens Henry, Deputy Executive Director for HCC and FITBK co-founder. Since FITBK went virtual, the classes have garnered an audience that extends beyond New York City. 

“We have people in other parts of the U.S. and also parts of the Caribbean, as well as the UK who join,” said Henry. 

Through Facebook Live, Instagram Live and Zoom, FITBK offers classes like Virtual Torch and Fitness Remedy, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, respectively. 

About 150 to 200 participants join via video conferencing on a weekly basis, said Henry. 

According to Lewis, the Tuesday Torch classes she teaches involve high-intensity exercises like squats, pushups, burpees and plank. FITBK holds a dance cardio class on Thursdays.

Lewis addresses virtual participants during her class.

Participants are often encouraged to talk about mental health during classes, and FITBK has also hosted special chats around mental health and fitness. Casseus said HCC can build upon the mental health programming with the Brooklyn Communities Collaborative Grant. 

“We’ve had a couple sessions with our participants in regards to how they’re coping, being at home and isolated for so long and what sort of (physical) activities they are doing,” he added. 

HCC has also gone virtual with its regular mental health counseling services, and the organization can refer FITBK participants to these in-house services, during fitness sessions. 

Thanks to the recent grant, FITBK will have the opportunity to hold more classes, as well.

“Our instructors’ times are very limited, again because of funding, so now we can add more time with our instructors and do more classes during the week,” Casseus said.

Brooklyn Communities Collaborative launched its Strong Communities Fund at the end of April, as a response to health needs in the community arising from COVID-19, according to Shari Suchoff, executive director of the nonprofit organization. 

According to a press release, Brooklyn Communities Collaborative has made $3 million available through the fund, with nearly $577,000 already awarded by the end of June. Nonprofits can apply for funding on the organization’s website

The Strong Communities Fund is designed for organizations working in underserved areas that have a track record of success.  

“We’re really trying to get money to organizations that (have) community projects that are otherwise overlooked by the larger funding sources,” Suchoff added. 

Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn manages Brooklyn Communities Collaborative. Grant funding comes from a Medicaid program led by the hospital, Suchoff confirmed. 

New York City is the only region still in Phase Three of the state’s reopening plan, but even in Phase Four, gyms have not been allowed to reopen. It remains unclear when gyms will open their doors again.

Casseus said HCC will follow city guidelines when it comes to holding in-person fitness classes. Since in-person classes can draw up to 75 people, he said it would not be safe to resume in-person sessions.

With gyms and germs going hand-in-hand for many people, Lewis said virtual fitness is likely here to stay. 

“I think it’s here to stay long term, I think people have realized that you really don’t have to leave the comfort of your home if you don’t want to and how much you can accomplish with bands and your body weight,” she also said. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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