Helping people get fit is the goal of fitness facility operators, but many of them also focus on making their communities a better place through philanthropic efforts.
Health clubs are much more than businesses. They instill lifestyle changes in their members that reach far beyond working out. However, part of serving a community is not just about helping people improve their health and fitness. Club operators often reach beyond their walls through philanthropic efforts.
Charitable fundraising is not new to the fitness industry. Marathon-type events are commonly held at health clubs in partnership with different organizations. Oftentimes, the fitness-related activity also combats the cause by keeping people healthy.
Though the causes may vary, the events are frequently similar. Sponsorship-type events such as dollar-per-mile or pay-perpound can use indoor cycling, a track, a running course or a pool. Participants pay a registration fee to cover fundraising expenses and then get sponsors to donate a specific amount of money for each pound they lift or mile they complete.
One of the more well-known fundraising campaigns is Clubs for the Quest. This national campaign supports Augie’s Quest in raising funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s research initiative for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Fitness clubs across the country support the Quest by coordinating a fundraiser in their clubs or collecting donations for the cause. Popular group exercise classes for the cause follow the marathon event model and include a Ride for a Cure indoor cycling class, a Step Up for a Cure step class, a Core for a Cure abs class and a Knockout ALS kickboxing class. Clubs also come together for the annual Bash for Augie’s Quest, which raised more than $1.6 million last March, and the initiative marked $32.3 million in overall funds raised since founder Augie Nieto was diagnosed with ALS in 2005.
Though philanthropy comes in many forms, the following five facilities with notable philanthropic efforts stand out not because of the size of their programs or the amount of money they have raised but because they never stop to consider how their programs are increasing profits, membership and retention, or even if it puts their facility in a better light.
From a corporate fitness CEO who is building a safe haven for orphaned children to a boxing club that keeps troubled youth off the street and a university recreation center that feeds the homeless, each of the programs reaches outside their facility to assist their community and instill a new type of lifestyle change.
Don Whitney doesn’t let the day-today tasks of managing his 45 executive health club properties consume his life. Whitney has been serving a larger purpose for the past 44 years.
As a child, Whitney took mission trips, where he saw hungry, hurting and neglected children. At the ripe age of 13, already aware that millions of children worldwide were orphaned and thousands of children in the United States were in foster care, he began sponsoring children.
Today, Whitney, CEO of Corporate Sports Unlimited, Austell, GA, and his wife financially support 18 children around the world and have been involved in mission work with children for more than 40 years.
“They are our legacy and future,” Whitney says. “We have an obligation, and we’re responsible for what happens all over the world. I sought out really to serve a child that didn’t have a mom and dad.”
Whitney is bringing his mission work closer to home through the World Children’s Center, a 710-acre environmentally friendly boarding school center that is under construction in Haralson County, GA, and will serve homeless, orphaned or neglected children.
“I wanted to provide long-term care for children and not a Band-Aid approach where we come in and fix things for a little bit and then let the kids go,” he says. “This is the opportunity that we want to provide them.”
The World Children’s Center will support more than 800 children in 100 homes with surrogate parents. The facility will include a music and arts center, a school, athletic facilities, an amphitheater, equestrian and animal facilities, a chapel and a wellness center.
Whitney plans to open the first neighborhood in the next 24 months. To finish all three phases of construction by 2019 and to endow it, he must raise $1 billion, which he plans to do through private and public foundations, individual philanthropists, corporations and the H3 Community Event Series, which includes fundraising events varying from tournaments, a golf classic, a holiday gala and a 10K run.
“It’s really all about making eternal significance,” Whitney says. “You can’t leave this earth taking anything with you, so it’s important that we leave things behind that matter and make a difference. I can’t think of anything that is more endearing than children that are suffering.”
The Beacon Hill Athletic Club (BHAC), Brighton, MA, was founded in 1989 to do much more than instill healthy lifestyles in its members. The facility’s founders considered their clubs to be a focal point of the communities in which the clubs operated and wanted to serve as a place where members could learn about philanthropy. To raise their members’ awareness of the problems in the world and introduce them to ways in which they could help, they established a health club-based public charity.
“As successful business owners, my partner Jason Klein and I felt it was important to give back,” says David Weis, co-founder of Beacon Hill Athletic Clubs. “We started our business on a veritable wing and a prayer in 1989 and were fortunate enough to enjoy moderate success. The saying ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ rings true with both of us. We are lucky that many of our staff members share this vision and eagerly support the efforts of our foundation.”
A registered 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, the foundation’s fundraising efforts started after Weis met the ambassador from Bosnia-Herzegovina during a leadership mission in Washington, DC. Weis learned about the attempts to evacuate injured and sick civilians from Bosnia to New York City for medical care during the Balkan war in Bosnia and Croatia. Having previously worked in Boston-area hospitals, he joined the cause to organize and raise money for the Bosnia-to-Boston Airlift, which transported 13 Balkan civilians to Boston for free medical care.
“The Bosnia-to-Boston Airlift was an enormous part of my life for many years,” Weis says. “When the Balkan war broke out, Serbia and Bosnia were bitter enemies, and it was impossible to get medical care. Our job was to work with the UN High Commission for Refugees and identify children and adults who could be saved if promptly evacuated to medical facilities. We arranged for their travel to the United States, free medical care covering everything from amputated limbs to severe cancer and blindness due to land mines, housing, transportation, interpreters and food.”
After the war’s end, the foundation arranged for teams of paramedics to travel to desolate areas to deliver aid to patients. They sent a donated ambulance, sponsored an orphanage and organized an annual summer basketball camp for children.
Robyn Dalton, a master trainer, took over as the foundation director a year after its Bosnia-to-Boston Airlift. With 9/11, the war in Iraq and other domestic issues occurring, the foundation took up local causes that were nearer to the hearts of its members. Since then, the foundation has raised more than $100,000 for organizations such as Easter Seals, Children’s Hospital, the Lenny Fund, the AJWS Tsunami Fund, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Ronald McDonald Charities, the 9/11 Victims Fund and the Home for Little Wanderers.
“BHAC is a liaison between our members and charities that we and they would like to support,” Dalton says. “We bring the opportunity to them to support the different charities and allow them to take part either through financial donations or taking part in the events that we have.”
Dalton, who has worked at the facility for 12 years, says in addition to participating in the fundraising events, members can contribute to the foundation monthly through an automatic deduction plan.
For the past two years, the foundation has focused its fundraising efforts on the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute after the son of a manager of 15 years at the facility was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The foundation sponsors an annual Fitness Challenge to raise money for Dana-Farber and takes part in a Dana-Farber-organized event. Members pay $35 to take part in the challenge and win prizes donated by local businesses. A post-event party also includes a silent auction to increase fundraising.
“At the BHAC, we feel it’s important to give back,” Dalton says. “We strive to be more than a health club, more than just a place to work out. We try to encourage our members to get involved, to think about the world around them, and to understand that each of them is so much more fortunate than so many more people. We believe deeply that philanthropy is a two-way street; that it is a rewarding, fulfilling effort for all parties involved, and we try to be the vehicle through which more people can get involved.”
As a child, Harry Cummins lived in housing projects in Toledo, OH, where he was abused by neighborhood youth and witnessed stabbings and shootings. Feeling trapped in a troubled lifestyle, he began taking part in sports to channel his anger and frustrations. Over time, he saw that in the world of sports, people support each other, and the support he received helped to turn his life around.
Because of the effect sports had on his own behavior and because he had promised his childhood baseball coach that one day he would give back to the kids in the community, Cummins started the International Boxing Club (IBC), to help keep kids off the street and away from gangs and drugs.
“Sports turned my life around, so I wanted to use it to turn their lives around too,” he says. “The boxing club was my way to give back to the community. By helping the kids get off the streets and away from the gangs and drugs, they can turn their lives around.”
As the program developed and Cummins’ boxing team began traveling for competitions, he discovered that 75 percent of the kids in the program were failing in school. Cummins felt another calling to add a tutoring center to the IBC, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
"Boxing is the magnet that draws the kids in and it’s free of charge for the kids, but it’s mandatory that kids go into the classroom an hour before training and bring their schoolwork in,” Cummins says.
The IBC, which is for youth between the ages of 8 and 20, teaches lessons that extend far beyond the boxing ring. With a mission of empowering youth to succeed in life, the IBC provides a safe and secure environment for children of all backgrounds to engage in physical fitness programs, academic and vocational programs, community service initiatives and group challenges.
“We have a positive environment here, and I have zero tolerance for any negative talk,” Cummins says. “We’re here to help each other, and I am constantly reminding them they are champions every day.”
The IBC has reached more than 4,000 underserved youth over the last 13 years. In March, it relocated to a 20,000-square-foot facility in Oregon, OH, that allowed it to nearly double the number of youth it can serve.
“We constantly keep growing, and we’ve been blessed,” he says. “The kids really turn their lives around, and we try to save as many kids as we can, but unfortunately, we can’t save them all.”
Cummins also started a program called Gloves With Love in which the youth give back to the community. Every month, they go to a community center to cook and serve food to homeless people. They also have built wheelchair ramps for disabled people and volunteered at the Special Olympics.
“I think that it’s a big problem that you don’t see kids giving back at all, so this is teaching them to be champions,” he says. “And champions always give back because that’s what life is all about. We have to help people.”
The kids that take part in the program are held to certain academic and behavioral standards as they give back to the community, finish high school and go to college. In the past year, 12 of Cummins’ students attended a local university and three graduated from the University of Toledo. Another student graduated from high school with honors and will study architecture in college.
“I realized this [club] is why I experienced all the bad things in my life,” Cummins says. “Now, I can talk to these kids and relate to what they are going through so they understand I experienced the same discrimination, and I can help them deal with the obstacles they face on the streets.”
Student employees are hired and evaluated on more than performance at the Outdoor Recreational Sports department at the University of Texas at Austin. Chris Burnett, assistant director of outdoor recreational sports at the university, also recognizes and rewards his staff based on the character traits of humility, loyalty, creativity and initiative. As Burnett and his students focused on being humble, they began a series of staff service projects that included feeding the homeless and removing invasive plants from protected wildlife areas.
“If you reward them based on traits of their character, you build them up and get better long-term performance,” Burnett says. “You could see students respond more to that leadership and management style. When you reward them publicly for a character trait, the people around them want that, too, so it motivates and inspires them to be better as they pursue that kind of public recognition.”
Recognition came from making breakfast tacos for the homeless of Austin, TX. Burnett discovered that $10 could make 50 breakfast tacos with eggs, bacon and tortillas. To feed more homeless, he began soliciting donations from students, raising about $250 in two-anda- half weeks.
“More importantly, however, students showed up to cook the tacos, wrap them, put them in coolers and drive down to the homeless shelter where we set up a couple of tables and hand them out,” Burnett says.
Soon, students were handing out between 600 and 700 tacos. Then, Burnett and his students started collecting abandoned locker goods and leftover T-shirts from events or competitions to give to the homeless.
“We talk about the community and homelessness and why it is important to be humble and embracing the opportunities that we have because somebody cared enough to invest in you,” Burnett says, “and they need to remember that as they go forward in life, because some people don’t have that in their lives.”
Burnett and his staff also have worked with several local nonprofits to collaborate on the removal of invasive species from protected wetlands and wildlife habitats. This month, they are taking their collaborative service project to federally protected Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, TX, where they are removing an invasive tropical plant from the Philippines. In 2011, 50 students volunteered at the habitat. This year, 250 students volunteered.
“I planted a seed in the students and just ran with it,” Burnett says. “It has been a very humbling and rewarding experience for me and the students that work here as well.”
Awarded the President’s Staff Award for Outstanding Supervisor in 2012 by the president of the university, Burnett is doing more than giving back to the community as he teaches invaluable lessons to his students.
“About five years ago, I decided the service project is something all my student staff had to go through,” Burnett says. “In one way, it was a way for me to cut the herd, and in another way, allowed me to teach humility and loyalty. What’s amazing to me is the quality of students that want to give back and are happy to do it and don’t have an attitude about it. Those are the kinds of kids I want working for me.
“I tell my students, ‘What’s more important to me than what you do while you’re here is what you do when you leave here. Learn your lessons here.’ I fully expect them to make mistakes, but I also expect them to learn from those mistakes.”
A partnership between Western Illinois University (WIU) Campus Recreation and Thompson Residence Hall at WIU led to a fundraising tournament in 2002 that over the last decade has spread to 15 other universities and attracted nearly 12,000 participants to raise money for breast cancer research.
Known as Big Pink Volleyball, the game was set up as a traditional volleyball tournament except with a four-foot pink volleyball. It started in support of Susan G. Komen, an Illinois native who lost her battle with breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 36. Six teams signed up for the first tournament in 2002 in Macomb, IL, raising $318.75. The tournament continued every year, and in the fall of 2011, 234 teams played to raise more than $16,000.
Judy Yeast, associate director of campus recreation at WIU, watched the tournament spread across the country as residence hall complex directors who worked on the event moved to different schools and took the program with them.
“I’m humbled by the way it has spread across the country, but it doesn’t surprise me because everything you need to do it is right here,” Yeast says. “You need students to participate, a workforce to run it, and it’s natural to put in the recreation center.”
Yeast saw how the tournament fit in with the university’s goals of higher values in higher education, and the students who got involved wanted to give back and promote a cause. This kind of dedication led Courtney James to develop a website that serves as a national network and centralized place to get information, share success stories and publicity efforts, and find information about how to start the tournament at their rec center, she says.
Having attended graduate school at WIU, James began working on Big Pink in its eighth year and took the tournament with her when she became assistant director for campus activities at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Big Pink Volleyball has raised more than $100,000, with 60 percent of the funds going to the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the other 40 percent to other charities. With more than 11,000 participants on 1,500 teams, Big Pink Volleyball has spread beyond just one recreation center.
“Everybody knows somebody who has breast cancer,” James says. “Our students come into this with a basic idea of what breast cancer is or they might have heard of someone who was affected by breast cancer. But statistics say it affects one out of eight people, so when you relate it back to the women in their sorority or the women they may be sitting in class with, it is suddenly this unbelievably real statistic, and they know they are fighting for something more."