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Working out problems while working out

At the Sav-Up CrossFit Gym on Lakeville Street, if you look within the building's industrial exterior, you’ll find something you might not expect to see: a safe space for Petaluma’s youth to escape. The kids go there as part of the YouThrive program, in association with Side by Side, and they train there twice a week under the supervision and coaching of gym owner Keith Michelucci.

The YouThrive program works specifically with youth ages 11-18, aiming to help them escape or avoid troubled behavior and situations. Michelucci presents workshops, group meetings and activities designed to provide participants with the right tools to follow a positive path.

YouThrive first paired up with Sav-Up back in March, when board member Rich Walcoff brought up the program to Michelucci, who immediately felt the call to help where he knew he could – the gym. After speaking to YouThrive program director, Adrian Maldonado, they knew they were on their way to something special.

“We touched on the importance of being able to have that place where you can just go to and let out some steam,” said Maldonado, “whether it’s running or lifting or playing a sport technically – but just to have that structured space dedicated for that.”

Keith knew from experience that exercise can be a doorway to self-confidence and improvement.

“I started lifting weights when I was 13, and it was this therapy for me that was something I absolutely needed to do,” said Michelucci. “Good or bad days, no matter what, lifting weights and exercising in some way always made me feel better.”

As COVID-19 hit, the program was pushed to the online livestream platform, Zoom. This had its challenges, especially with camaraderie and team feeling not faring so well on a computer screen. In recent weeks, the program has been able to revive its in-person training, by accommodating to social distancing standards. The kids are now able to work out together in the gym’s outdoor space, while leaving one another plenty of room to be safe. Michelucci worked to get the kids back at Sav-Up as early as he could, because he knows the importance of in-person connection within the program.

“I don’t know what their house is like – I don’t know what their home is like – and I know that if I can get them out for an hour to come train with us, then it’s, I don’t know, I love it,” he said.

It might seem peculiar that kids who are only 11-years-old would want to frequent a gym and do a bunch of exercises written on a whiteboard. But Michelucci believes it’s more than that.

“We have a good time – we play games, we play football and stuff like that,” he explained. “They get excited and I think they get a sense of accomplishment. When I put a workout on my board, and they do a good job at it – I think they really love that.”

Walcoff agrees, recognizing the connection that sports provides to push people beyond their limits, even after practice is over.

“It all comes down to self-esteem,” said Walcoff. “If you can feel better about yourself – how you look and how you feel, strengthen your body and clarify things in your mind – that’s what it’s all about because that’s what’s going to help launch you in whatever you do.”

Though Walcoff was only just recently voted into Side by Side’s board of directors as of June 30, the power of sports and exercising is already in his plans to strengthen the program and potential opportunities for the kids.

“I’m hoping to enhance the program,” he said, “and I came up with this idea, Side by Side with Pros, where I wanted to – before the pandemic – bring these kids to the 49ers, the Warriors, the Giants and maybe get a chance to talk to professional athletes.”

Walcoff is certain this will help give kids a perspective on how you can prevail even if you have a difficult background. Until the pros get the chance to inspire the youth with their tales of triumph, Keith and Rich are there to share and be role models.

“Being a good person, making good choices, staying out of trouble, simple stuff like that,” said Michelucci. “It all boils down to just being a good human being all the time. Not just when you’re at my class – do it at home, do it at school. Let people see what you are, and not anything else.”

He aims to lead by example and accountability, and he works to be a safe person for the kids to come to when they need to talk about something. But the gym provides even more than that.

“We’re teaching the young people to interact with other teenagers from Petaluma who come from different types of backgrounds and living so they can get to interact with someone that they usually wouldn’t speak to in their immediate circle,” said Maldonado. “It’s multicultural, and everyone is treated the same as an athlete, and that to me is very important because at the end of the day, it’s putting in the hard work and just being coachable – that’s what it’s all about,”

Improvement is tracked through the program by monitoring grades, school attendance and disciplinary actions, while also seeing how healthy the relationships in their lives have become. With program leaders who always have the kids' best interest at heart, health is a goal on the inside and the out.

“In many ways sports is a metaphor for life,” added Walcoff. “You’ve got to do so many things – the balance, the concentration, the focus, the teamwork, overcoming obstacles. It’s hard at first to maybe run or lift or whatever, but then – you see the growth and the progress and you get energized and fired about that and maybe apply it to other things in your life.”

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