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Can fitness help break the cycle of poverty?

Ryerson nutrition student brings weekly fitness programs to shelters through Bootcamps for Change
By: Will Sloan
July 19, 2018
Bootcamps for Change

Photo: Bootcamps for Change was founded by Ryerson nutrition and food student Katie Heggtveit.

Fitness can help break the cycle of poverty. That’s the premise behind Bootcamps for Change, external link, a shelter-based, grassroots program founded by Ryerson student Katie Heggtveit.

The initiative brings weekly fitness programs to homeless shelters, for participants ages 16-24. Founded in June 2017, it has raised over $20,000 in donations to support its programs, which now take place weekly in three local shelters (Yonge Street Mission, Horizons for Youth, Eva’s Initiatives).

“Our three pillars are physical health, mental health, and resilience,” says Katie Heggtveit, a second-year Nutrition and Food student (and co-founder with Kam Kuzminski, who joined in February). “Physical health: when I was ill, it perpetuates the cycle of poverty, because when you’re sick, you can’t work. Mental health: when you don’t feel good about yourself, you won’t have the confidence to go do an interview, or to even gain skills. We’re trying to teach people skills while also giving them an awesome workout.”

The program is intended not only to promote a healthy lifestyle, but also to open doors to possible careers. Heggtveit hopes the program will soon raise money to support participants’ efforts to become certified fitness instructors. “Personal trainers make, on average $45 per hour,” says Heggtveit. “Consider that, and then we can give people a job that will actually break the cycle of poverty, rather than just giving them food, clothes, and shelter. At the end of the day, if you take that away, they’re at the same place as before the intervention.

“We get them to teach us things. A lot of the youth have a lot of self-defence skills, either through classes or on their own. At the end of the class, we say, ‘Hey—do you want to teach us something?’ They gain teaching skills, but they also feel a new self-confidence.”

Heggtveit, age 21, has worked with homeless youth for 10 years. She also survived an eating disorder, and says that nutrition and food programs saved her life. “I was lucky because I had those services, and a lot of people don’t realize how expensive gyms and nutrition programs are. Imagine going through all that without a home.”

Her experiences make her uniquely qualified to connect with many of the youth. “Everyone I have worked with has a story of how fitness has helped them,” she says. “I was shy at first, but if I can share my story with these youth, they share their stories with me. If you’re empathetic, and are sharing what you’ve been through, they’re more willing to open up.”

Heggtveit hopes that the program might contribute to de-stigmatizing homelessness. At Ryerson, she has drawn inspiration from Pascal Murphy’s ‘Homelessness in Canadian Society’ class. “A lot of people will look at someone who’s homeless on the street and say, ‘They must be drunk,’ or, ‘They must be on drugs.’ There’s a perception that they chose to be in that situation—whereas there are so many external circumstances, especially in a city like Toronto, where the average two-bedroom rent in 2015 was $1,600-$1,800.”

In its first year, Bootcamps for Change has already launched chapters in Halifax and at Wilfrid Laurier University, and developed partnerships, external link with a slew of businesses, influencers and fitness professionals. Heggtveit hopes this is the beginning of a rapid expansion, facilitating connections between local trainers and shelters nationwide. “The real evolution has been the connections I’ve made with these youth,” says Heggtveit. “I’ve really gotten to know them.”

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