Would you pay to exercise knowing the health of a local kid were at stake?
Josh Guerrieri of Oakhurst, a former Atlanta Public Schools teacher, thinks so – and has motivated hundreds of people from Grant Park to Oakhurst to put their sweat and money behind his dream.
Guerrieri’s company, FitWit, counts on the premise and promise that a successful for-pay boot camp for adults can fund a free fitness program for at-risk teenagers.
Each week, from 250 to 300 adults attend dawn or evening fitness camps at , Grady and Decatur high schools. They pay $219 to $359 for six weeks (or $115 monthly). Each adult fee provides one week for a child in the FiTTeens after-school program, which reaches 25 kids and their teachers and school staff.
FitWit helped Christal Presley of Ormewood Park lose 25 pounds in four months, and gain an investment in local teenagers.
“The cool thing was at the end of the year, we had a big banquet and got to see different videos of the kids and all the things they’ve done,” said Presley, an APS instructional mentor teacher. “As someone who works in the school system, I know there are tremendous needs…. I see so many kids who are overweight.”
FitWit’s exercise and games generally help the students — none of whom are on sports teams — feel more positive about themselves, said Michelle Woods of Candler Park, who, with Ben Thoele, runs the nonprofit after-school program. “Thank you for showing me something that I always had a fear about,” one girl wrote her in a note.
This twist on traditional fitness took root in Guerreri during college, when a mentor challenged him.
Then a nationally ranked decathlete from Wittenberg University in Ohio, Guerrieri planned to enter law school and become the next Jerry Maguire – a high-powered sports agent.
“Isn’t that a little bit shallow?” his college advisor said to him. “You can offer more."
Guerrieri switched gears and in 2001 entered Teach for America, a national program like Peace Corps, only for needy schools. He was placed as a history teacher and assistant basketball/track coach at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta.
His skills of motivation worked first on wife Erin. A college hurdler, she left public relations to also teach for APS, in special education.
“In our classrooms, our students made tremendous gains, but we still felt as if our hands were tied at times by the red tape and bureaucracy of a large school system,” Guerrieri wrote in an essay for Wittenberg’s alumni magazine. “Though we created change within our small classroom communities, we wanted to create systemic change that would affect more children.”
While Guerrieri, now 32, helped coach his school’s top runners and basketball players, he couldn't reach the greater number of students whose health and fitness were scraping bottom. They didn’t dress for P.E., instead talking on cell phones while strolling around the track.
“Kids act like knuckleheads when they don’t treat their bodies right,” he said in an interview. “They need a release, to burn off the energy. If they feel better, they’ll do better in class.”
In 2005, the couple began an informal, volunteer after school program to help non-athletic kids with health (“Fit”) and schoolwork (“Wit”).
“The students who do not participate in sports feel like they have no reason to eat healthy or maintain a regular fitness routine,” said Erika Hall, collaboration teacher and caseload manager at Jackson High School, a liaison to what is now called FITTeens.
“They do not realize the impact of junk food on their lives now or in the future. Furthermore, they have not even considered the potential harm they are causing their young bodies. Academically, students crash during instruction because their blood sugar level is constantly changing due to the types of foods they are consuming.”
From his past in decathlon – where athletes compete in 10 fitness events – Guerrieri believed in spicing exercise with variety. The games and fun challenges (“burpees” and “banana relays” are two of them) for the high schoolers became, in 2006, the foundation of the first “boot camp with something else” for adults.
The freshness and atmosphere appealed to Mike Evans, 34, a father of two from Decatur. He pushed himself through an “unbelievably difficult” first FitWit session in May 2010 and recently wrapped up his fifth camp. His cholesterol levels have normalized, his weight is down “and my wife thinks I’m sexy again.”
For Meredith Parks, 38, a working mother from Atlanta who is expecting her second child, FitWit’s fees loomed “out of my price range.” She used a coupon to enroll, and felt so much better in her body and self-confidence that she “re-prioritized my monthly budget."
“I feel great about the work the program is doing for the kids and teachers,” Parks said, adding, “The community of FitWit is a big draw for me. Before, I’d go to the gym and really never meet any people…. The people are one of the drivers keeping me coming day after day.”
As their business and family grew, Josh Guerrieri cut back on teaching and finally left in 2008. FitWit dropped the tutoring, focusing on “fitness as a vehicle to transform children’s lives,” he said.
Public school facilities remains the base for FitWit's dual missions. Every weekday morning except Wednesdays, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Guerrieri runs the 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. adult camps at Jackson High School.
“We don’t fit into the quick fix market,” said Guerrieri. “This is a fitness community, a lifestyle." More than 70 percent of adult clients are repeat campers, Guerrieri said, giving FitWit a solid platform for helping both adults and kids.
Guerrieri's family has grown along with FitWit. His wife is due with baby No. 4 this summer, when their eldest will be age 4. Another kid at home poses the next personal challenge to his strategies for physical and mental fitness.