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Image: Linda Sinclair working out at gym
Courtesy Heathworks Community Fitness
Linda Sinclair, a longtime member of Healthworks at St. Mary’s, was elated over the news that the gym wouldn't have to close.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 7/19/2011 9:11:45 AM ET 2011-07-19T13:11:45

Sure, a fitness center can help a person get in shape and feel great. But is it a bit of a stretch for someone to describe her gym as “life-saving”?

Not necessarily — if the gym in question is Healthworks at St. Mary’s, in the Dorchester area of Boston. Since 2002, this small gym has provided completely free memberships to thousands of homeless and very low-income women. Many members struggle with diabetes, high-blood pressure and obesity. Some contend with mental illnesses and mood disorders. Almost all deal with crushing, chronic stress, and the gym can be their one safe place to alleviate it.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to understand just how devastated the gym’s 450 regular members were when they learned last month that St. Mary’s had to close its doors for financial reasons.

“With the economy what it is right now, we’ve really taken a hit and we’ve been operating at a deficit,” said Monica Frender, 29, site director for Healthworks at St. Mary’s. “The plan was to close for the summer.”

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When closing day arrived, members milled about the gym in a daze. Where would they go now? How would they cope? Women hugged and cried. They exchanged phone numbers, fearing their friendships might disintegrate in the chaotic months to come.

And then, two hours before the doors were to be locked, something utterly unexpected happened. Lauren Broadhurst, Healthworks Community Fitness’ executive director, came bursting into the gym with news.

“She said, ‘Monica! Monica! An anonymous donor has come forward to help keep the gym going!’ ” Frender recalled. “It was just unbelievable. Some women burst into tears. ... There was a lot of hugging, a lot of high-fiving. Everyone was definitely very, very happy!”

‘Not like other fancy gyms’
Cheryl Poole, 48, has been a regular fixture at Healthworks at St. Mary’s for nearly four years now. When she first joined, she wasn’t sure about the tiny gym tucked away inside a homeless shelter. The fitness center has just one shower and very few lockers, and the TVs don’t always work.

Image: Monica Frender teaching an exercise class at Healthworks at St. Mary’s
Courtesy Heathworks Community Fitness
Monica Frender, far left, site director for Healthworks at St. Mary’s, teaches a PiYo class at the gym.  PiYo is a combination of pilates and yoga.

Before long, though, the place started to grow on her. The gym may be modest, but the exercise equipment, fitness classes and nutrition instruction are high-quality. Poole was astonished when her exercising helped her get her diabetes under control — so much so that she no longer needed her daily insulin injections.

That development was so motivating that she kept on going. Since joining St. Mary’s, she’s lost nearly 70 pounds and completed the Jimmy Fund Walk, an event that follows the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon route. She also just got certified as a personal trainer so she can help other women at the volunteer-run gym.

“I’m serious,this place really has saved my life, and it really has saved a lot of other women’s lives too,” said Poole, who is on long-term disability for myriad health issues, including bipolar disorder. “This is a place of hope. ... It’s not like other fancy gyms and luxury gyms that are out there. It’s about community and communication, and it works.”

Poole was panicking in the days before the anonymous donor stepped forward. A donation in the $3,500 range was enough to keep the gym open for the summer.

“An angel was able to keep us open,” Poole said. “When I found out, I came out to one of my members who is Hispanic and speaks Spanish. I had tears in my eyes and I told her, ‘You come back here Monday! You stay here! You stay here!’ She understood what I meant.”

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Volunteers provide instruction
Healthworks at St. Mary’s is one of two gyms operated by Healthworks Community Fitness, a non-profit organization in Dorchester. The other Healthworks gym is open to women and children on a low-cost, sliding-scale basis.

But Healthworks at St. Mary’s is unusual because it offers completely free memberships to women who qualify for them. “To the best of my understanding, there are no other gyms doing this in the country,” site director Frender said. “When we’ve done research for grants, we haven’t found anyone else doing this.”

Frender is the only employee at the gym who is paid a modest salary. Everyone else who works there — nutritionists, yoga instructors, personal trainers and others — does so on a volunteer basis.

Image: Healthworks at St. Mary's site director Monica Frender and intern Angel Omoregie
Courtesy Heathworks Community Fitness
Healthworks at St. Mary's site director Monica Frender, left, spends time at work with her intern, Angel Omoregie, right.

When Healthworks at St. Mary’s opened, the idea was to provide a safe place for at-risk women to improve their health and their entire outlook on life. Since 2002, it’s served nearly 8,000 women, pregnant teens and teenage moms.

The need for access to exercise facilities in Dorchester is high; the low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood has the fourth-highest rate of obesity in Massachusetts. It’s the kind of community that can be found on the margins of virtually every major metropolitan area of the United States — places where residents have limited access to grocery stores and fresh produce, but easy access to fatty processed foods, alcohol and tobacco.

“We’re definitely in a food desert here. Most of what you find around here is fast-food, processed, mini-mart-type stuff,” Frender said. “But just because somebody lives in an urban area or lives on a fixed income, that doesn’t meant they shouldn’t be able to take care of themselves. That’s why we’re here.”

To learn more about the work of Healthworks Community Fitness or donate to help keep Healthworks at St. Mary’s open past this summer, click here.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

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