Rhode Island Firefighter Credits CrossFit Program ‘Move to Heal’ In Helping His Recovery

March 14, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Move to Heal Instagram page (photographer: @sweetguinever)
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Firefighter and father-of-two Joe Potenza abused alcohol and drugs and reached a point of no return four years ago. It wasn’t until a friend helped him get back on track and along that road he found ‘Move to Heal’ at Ocean State CrossFit North. 

The gym, located in Smithfield, Rhode Island, has partnered with a program that provides resources for individuals dealing with substance abuse, depression, addiction, mental illness, among other things. Pat Downes, a long-time member of the gym and a mental health professional introduced the gym owners to the program. Jen Jasper, Ray Fleser, and David Ward-Smith are co-owners of Ocean State CrossFit North and have seen the program flourish since its inception. 

Some members, like Potenza, have taken advantage of the new program and while it’s anonymous he has chosen to share his story publicly in hopes of being able to help someone else going through a difficult time. 

  • “I’m not proud of my addiction, but I’m proud to share about my addiction,” said Potenza. “I hope, in my eyes, by me showing I’m strong enough to go there, I’m hoping someone else in the dark can come to me and I can help them.”
  •  Potenza said he dealt with an abusive and alcoholic father growing up and found himself in a bad group of friends around the age of 20 and “so started my life of alcohol and drug use.”
  • While becoming a firefighter was a highlight for him “with the love and passion that came with the job, also came more trauma that I suppressed.” 
  • “The old way of dealing with the difficulties in the fire service was one of two ways; one was to push it down and not to talk about it, or make jokes to hide the pain.”

Potenza adds, he found CrossFit in 2012, prior to his recovery and fluctuated with his progress. But it wasn’t until Move to Heal meetings began in July of 2022 that he saw real change. 

Ward-Smith says it is extremely rewarding “seeing something like this first hand with my own clients dealing with mental health and how personal training with myself and doing CrossFit has changed their life. We are fortunate to now bring this mentality to the larger scale and help out as many people as possible.”

Jasper and Fleser explained the way the program works is that those who want to attend just show up and do a 30 minute group workout to start, followed by a 60 minute meeting. The entire meeting is free and open to the public and completely anonymous. 

  • “Our first class I think we had about 20 people, a lot of friends and family. I really wanted to make sure people felt welcome. And honestly it’s never dipped lower than 20 people,” said Jasper. 
  • When it comes to those who attend the meetings, Jasper adds, “you have the whole end of the spectrum. You have some people that are fighting for sobriety. They’re coming there—it’s kind of like an off-site thing where they’re in an inpatient rehab. And then you have people with 15 to 20 years of sobriety. There’s a couple of high school kids, it’s a pretty mixed bunch.”
  • Fleser, who coaches some of the Move to Heal meetings, says he programs so that anyone can do the workouts, “the fitness is always designed to be somewhat low skill, high cardio, get the endorphins flowing. We’re not going to teach the snatch or double unders or anything like that. It’s inclusive, they’re doing burpees, kettlebell swings, running, maybe jump rope, maybe box jumps, it’s infinitely scalable.”

A perk of attending the meetings at least once per week are two free counseling sessions with a licensed therapist per month and free nutrition counseling consultation. If someone attends the meetings twice per week they get an unlimited gym membership at Ocean State Crossfit North. 

Move to Heal, a non-profit organization, currently lists seven locations throughout the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island region. 

Jasper and Fleser point out that CrossFit can be an expensive sport, so being able to have people come to their gym at no cost is a really great way to give people the whole experience. 

“If coming to this meeting once a week is giving you enough of an opportunity to get to the gym and that’s keeping you in line enough to help out your life then that’s an honor to be able to do,” said Fleser. 

For Potenza, he has plans to keep attending the meetings and have CrossFit and Move to Heal as a big part of his life. 

“It will be my outlet to maintain the best me that I can,” he said. “If I go a week without attending a meeting I feel a heaviness on me, after I attend I feel the weight released.”

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