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My Block, My Hood, My City Brings Teens to South Loop Crossfit Class

 Baker College Prep students listen to Brick Crossfit instructor Elisabeth Akinwale.
Baker College Prep students listen to Brick Crossfit instructor Elisabeth Akinwale.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

SOUTH CHICAGO —  Participating in a crossfit workout for the first time Tuesday taught 16-year-old Destiny Buford the importance of not quitting, she said.

“It was a learning experience because it’s going to push me further,” said the South Chicago resident.  She said she usually doesn’t work out, but she wanted to finish what she started.

“It showed me how to keep going and not stop,” she said.

Destiny, along with nine of her classmates from Baker College Prep in South Chicago, participated in the My Block, My Hood, My City exploration trip to Brick Crossfit Chicago Tuesday after school. The organization was founded by Chatham resident Jahmal Cole. He brought the teens from Baker College Prep, one of three schools he works with in his mission to expand Chicago kids' experiences exploring the city.

Cole usually takes kids and teens from the South and West sides to explore neighborhoods in other parts of the city they haven't been to. This trip was slightly different because instead of a typical Saturday trip, he picked up the kids after school.

For the first time for many of them, the group worked through a cycle of weight-lifting exercises. Crossfit workouts typically combine a variety of movements that are all timed, with participants competing with themselves to both increase their weights and speed. 

Destiny said she was initially intimidated when she entered the gym, located at 55 E. Monroe.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” she said. “It was a good workout ... I’m glad I got to experience this because many people don’t get to, especially people on the South Side of Chicago.”

Up to the day before the trip, none of the teens had prior knowledge of the basics of crossfit training. Carolina Herrera, 16, said she did some research online when she learned she was coming on the trip.

“I got kind of scared because I saw that it wasn’t like a normal gym,” she said. Her 16-year-old classmate Ivory Davenport, of Englewood said the same thing — she worried she wasn’t ready for the intense workout.

“I play sports, and that’s the hardest I have ever worked out in my life,” she said, adding that she is interested in doing it again.

Crossfit Level One coach Elisabeth Akinwale, 37, reached out to Cole, inviting him to bring his explorers to a private class. She said she wanted to be a part of what Cole is building.

There aren’t many, if any crossfit classes being offered on the South Side, Akinwale said. She wanted to expose young people of color to the unique workout style.

“Our communities are disproportionately impacted by things like diabetes, all these things that can be addressed through fitness, and this is a wonderful model that’s replicable, and it’s really effective,” she said.

The kind of training she offers is “fun” because it’s community based and there are a diversity of activities.

After the two hour workout session, Cole took the teens a block west of the gym to Brightwok Kitchen, 21 E. Adams. The Asian eatery offers customers gluten- and dairy-free stir-fries and salads. It was another first for the teens.

“This is all new to me, and it’s actually pretty good,” said Ivory.  “At first I was picky on what I was going to get because I’ve never been here before, but it tasted really good.”

Destiny said her South Chicago neighborhood doesn’t offer food like Brightwok’s. She sees a lot of fast food places.

The entire experience was a great one, one that took the teens out of their comfort zone, their physical education teacher said.

“They see athletes like Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, they see those athletes on TV but don’t know the back story behind it, the hard work that’s put in,” said Danny Castaneda.

The 26-year-old of Portage Park said many of students come Downtown, but they stick to the places they’re familiar with, never experiencing anything new.  He was pleased to see them trying new things.

Cole said this is what it’s all about.

“I wanted them to come Downtown to see a crossfit gym, try some workouts they’ve never done before,” he said. “I’m glad the trainers didn’t take it easy on them, they really showed them that if you want anything in life you’re going to have to work to get it and you have to earn it so I think there is a lesson in this.”

Cole says their post-workout meal sent the same message: that making healthy choices matter, and leaving your comfort zone can be fun.

“A lot of times when you grow up in South Chicago, Englewood or Chatham there are very limited healthy eating options. I wanted them to come out here because you can choose your own vegetables, you can choose your own rice, and they can actually see what ingredients go into making a healthy meal," he said.

Right now his My Block, My Hood, My City program works with Butler College Prep, Baker College Prep and the Young Men’s Educational Network. Cole takes a group of 15 students on a new trip once a month. His goal is to be in 10 schools by September, reaching a total of 150 students.

Cole said he works with students whose attendance is lower than 80% because he wants to give them hope. He said that he hopes opening their minds with new experiences will indirectly improve their academic performance.

Chicagoans interested in supporting Cole's cause can purchase My Block, My Hood, My City t-shirts, hoodies and more from the website, which helps fund these trips. The website is www.mbmhmc.com.

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