Sitka gym borne from college closure

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SITKA, Alaska (AP) — On the list of top 10 New Year's resolutions, "staying fit and healthy" ranked fifth in a recent nationwide study.

Hames Center director Cindy Edwards said she knows that this fact alone will get people through the doors in the New Year, but that's not the main goal of the fitness and athletics facility, now finishing its fourth year of non-profit operation under Alaska Arts Southeast and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

"What makes us different is we really want people to stay," Edwards said. "We don't want people to sign up and not show up. We want people to stay - the reason we do that is we really want people to use their memberships to make a difference in their lives. We want to make a difference in people's lives."

This in turn will make a difference in the overall health of the community, which is one of the goals of the center, she said.

That said, the Hames Center will be open 1 to 5 p.m. on New Year's Day. And if people need a marker as a place to start becoming a healthier person, more power to them, she said.

"They might think 'I'm going to start fresh right now,'" Edwards said. "If that's what it takes, if that's what you need, then take it."

The idea of a short-term commitment turning into a long-term one rings true with both Edwards and her husband, Brant Brantman.

Formerly, the Hames Center was part of Sheldon Jackson College, but the college always made its facilities, including its 25-meter pool, available to the public with day passes and memberships. After the college closed its doors in 2007, the city took over operations of the popular fitness center before ending its commitment in the fall of 2010.

But the doors were closed only a few months before the SJC Board of Trustees offered the campus to Alaska Arts Southeast, the parent organization of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. SFAC turned to the community of local exercise and fitness advocates for help with reactivating the Hames Center, which by that time was in need of major refurbishing because of years of deferred maintenance.

Edwards, who says she had never been a fan of gyms, was one of those who came forward.

"I was never really a gym user," she saId. "But my beloved husband Brant got excited about helping - and he was on the beat. I came home one day, and he was talking to (SFAC director) Roger Schmidt. It went from morning, noon through lunch through dawn. By the end it was like: 'What do you think about opening a gym?'"

Brantman and Edwards "lured in" their close friends Brian McNitt and Grace Brooks to help, and the four hashed out a plan to build on a volunteer model. The four committed to volunteering for six months to get the project off the ground, with all revenue from users going into the bank to build a fund that one day would permit a staff to be hired, while continuing to rely heavily on unpaid volunteers.

"We thought if we could create a really great place, and have value attached to it, then it could be sustainable," Edwards said.

They began a brisk, one-month turnaround project to take the fitness center from a closed, mothballed facility to a "renovated, rejuvenated" full-time gym. The idea took hold.

"We were all around the clock," Edwards remembers. "The phones were ringing off the hook, around the clock. Contractors, painters, carpenters - everybody, and their brothers and sisters were calling. People were donating equipment, donating around the clock, volunteering around the clock."

She remembers what she started to hear about the importance of the gym as a community asset.

"We heard from people who said they were going to leave town if the gym closed. We heard about people who were depressed after the gym closed," she said.

At that time, and since then, she has been impressed by the amount of money, time and effort people were willing to contribute. She estimates that volunteers contribute over 300 hours a week.

"We have a lot of dedicated people," Edwards said. "One of the volunteers said, If everybody does a little, no one has to carry a ton, and it's working out."

The six-month commitment has turned into four years now, with Edwards and other gym officials constantly coming up with new ways to meet people's wishes for fitness. Besides the open weight room at all hours, there are fitness classes ($5 for members), and sports like soccer, basketball, pickleball, volleyball and racquetball, as well as open gym hours and a climbing wall.

The latest major development is that the mothballed pool will be turned into a gym for gymnastics and silks, thanks to a $12,500 grant from the Crossett Fund. The new gymnastics program, run by Trisha Bessert and Brandon Howard, currently has more than 130 participants.

Other new activities include floor hockey - with Rollerblades soon to be added - a noontime pickleball hour and various family programs that give families a chance to play together, or adults a chance to exercise while Sitka Service Fellows play with their tots. The evening "Doc Talks" is another new program, in which health experts from Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital give talks on their areas of expertise, such as diabetes and blood pressure.

The gym also has a few free days throughout the year to serve the community at large for both members and non-members. The next one is Christmas Day, when the gym will be open 1 to 5 p.m. with no admission charge.

"Bring in your new toys, your scooters, and come and play," Edwards said.

Edwards said around the New Year she expects to see a renewed focus from some members - and new sign-ups for passes, along with people's resolutions to get fit.

"I hope it's not a fad," Edwards said, of the new members. "Take it seriously, and put it in your schedule. It makes such a difference."

Sara Peterson joined just after the New Year, not as a resolution, but more as a thought that she should try getting back into exercising.

She signed up for the Healthy Directions program, a three-month membership offer that came with a weekly class introducing participants to new exercises, such as weight lifting and rock climbing.

"It was really helpful," Peterson said. "It got me started."

She's now there five or six days a week on the cardio machines or lifting weights. She said being a gym member has changed the way she thinks about exercise.

"For me, in my younger years, I equated exercise with weight loss," Peterson said. "But for me recently it's more about my mental health. It's a stress reliever." Since joining Hames she has come to appreciate other things about the facility, including the family atmosphere and the mix of ages and activities available there.

"It's nice they have so many classes - I haven't even tried all of them," she said. (An added bonus was that the $250 New Directions program turned out to be reimbursable on her health insurance.)

Edwards, the initially reluctant gym user, has become an enthusiast, not only for the strength and cardiovascular training that's been her personal benefit, but for what she sees happening every day at the gym, now 700 members strong.

"Instantly you're surrounded by people with the same goal, not only to be the best they can be that day, but beyond," she said. "People trying to be healthier, stronger and better. You become the people you're surrounding yourself with. You're meeting new people, and I think in general if you join a class and stick with it for six months there's no doubt you'll see a difference."


Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel,

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