Two Mid-Atlantic Gyms Find Innovative Ways to Support Recovering Addicts and Inmates

July 12, 2020 by
Photo Credit: ULiftU
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On July 2, Ian Koch opened the doors to a new CrossFit affiliate. Saltwater Athletics in Somers Point, NJ, is a non-profit registered charity committed to helping those recovering from substance abuse. Just over 60 miles away in Philadelphia, PA, Wylie Belasik has also dedicated himself to providing opportunities for those who need one. Through UliftU, a non-profit branch of the gym he owns, Subversus Fitness, Belasik is currently mentoring and sponsoring coaching education for 14 inmates at a nearby state prison.

One big thing: These two programs illustrate some of the best work CrossFit and other fitness communities do. As CrossFit HQ institutes its own scholarship program, the possibility is ripe for a cohort of well-trained coaches and future gym owners who can add their own innovations and developments to these models. Both Koch and Belasik agree many people just need a financial opportunity and emotional/community support.    

Not your ordinary affiliate: Ian Koch’s affiliate, Saltwater Athletics offers “a sliding scale (membership) based on income, so that people who are scraping by don’t have to sacrifice fitness so they can pay their electric bill.” He currently offers a $50 a month membership for those in recovery who make less than $25,000 a year.  

  • “Our gym is built with the intention to improve people’s lives through fitness, especially those in early recovery from addiction,” Koch said.
Photo Courtesy of Ian Koch

Koch has firsthand experience. He struggled with substance abuse before becoming sober at 23. One of the biggest keys to sobriety is support, said 38-year-old Koch.

  • “For most folks in recovery from addiction, a strong support network or community is critical in the foundation of a new life.”
  • “Survey the membership at nearly any CrossFit affiliate and you’re likely to find a number of people who have swapped the bottle for the barbell,” he said.

Often the challenge for those in recovery to regain their health is a financial one, as those with a “history of substance use likely have criminal records that make finding stable employment challenging,” Koch said.

  • “Basically (our program is for) folks in recovery who are trying to get on their feet financially. We know how good CrossFit can be for them, but when you are faced with $150 at CrossFit (versus) $20 at Planet Fitness, CrossFit is a hard pill to swallow…So our goal is to get them in the door (and) then help them change their lifestyle,” Koch explained.

Through the Subversus Fitness UliftU program, Wylie Belasik, had been meeting with the inmates, prior to COVID-19, 12 of whom are men of color, once a week to put them through coaching and nutrition modules. Since the pandemic has prevented him from visiting the prison in person, he has continued to provide resources to the men as they work through their ISSA certification. The idea is for them to be job-ready the moment they’re released, he explained.

  • “For so many people, when you have completed your sentence, there are still so many barriers that it’s almost like your sentence isn’t complete, so the more we can help them reintegrate successfully, that’s going to be a better outcome for everyone…If someone can come home and already be certified, then we have accelerated that process to help that person come home with a job lined up already,” Belasik said.
Photo Credit: ULiftU

Prior to offering the program to inmates, UliftU provided training and education to men who had just been released from prison. Three of Belasik’s coaches at Subversus Fitness went through this program. A key thing that Belasik has learned is that waiting until someone is released from prison to provide resources isn’t the most ideal situation.

  • “Once someone gets home from prison, there are a ton of challenges pulling at them, a lot of pressure to get a job as soon as possible, and they have bills to pay and sometimes fines to pay. It takes about 10 months to support someone to get their (coaching) certification. That was just too long. That’s why I started working with inmates,” he said.
  • “The guys in our program are incredibly eager to plan for what their future will look like and how it’s going to be positive when their past might not have been. They just need an opportunity,” Belasik added.
  • “We’re bridging the gap, helping people get certified so they can get a job right when they’re released, so they can come home and already have that planned out, which is a huge step in breaking the cycle of incarceration. Why not use the time (when they’re in prison) to plan out what their future will look like? So they can have a better future.”

And he hopes that by providing an opportunity and support, UliftU will make a small dent in breaking through the many “systemic structures in place that cause great disparities.”

  • “Many of these disparities come down to racial issues that have been around for decades. We need to deliberately seek out where the gaps are, to find who isn’t being represented, and then tackle those communities through programs like ours,” he said.

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