CrossFit helps Camden kids cope, succeed

 Steve's Club owner Steve Liberati with Camden CrossFit participants CJ Chaparro, Gabby Dominguez and Dominic Dominguez. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Steve's Club owner Steve Liberati with Camden CrossFit participants CJ Chaparro, Gabby Dominguez and Dominic Dominguez. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Back when Steve Liberati was working as an exterminator, he didn’t expect to one day run a CrossFit gym and a “paleo foods” business.

Working for his father’s pest-control business, Liberati had a closeup view of the neighborhoods and streets of Camden. The small city has been struggling for years to escape the grip of poverty and crime.

A trim man with a quick smile, Liberati said he met some of the kids who live in Camden and he decided to open a fitness center. That was 2007.

Eight years later, Liberati’s idea has spread, and Steve’s Club has gone national with 27 clubs across the country. He still runs the main location, the first one, in Pennsauken, New Jersey.

“My idea with Steve’s Club was more or less to build a community, and I loved working out. That was a passion of mine, something I wanted to share with others. And I used the CrossFit as the vehicle to bring the kids together,” he said.

The high-intensity fitness program, which is based on body weight exercises, incorporates weight-lifting, gymnastics and sprinting.

Finding guidance through sweat

CJ Chaparro, 18, has belonged to Steve’s Club for more than three years and said the experience has changed him.

“They make your priorities straight,” the Camden resident said. “If you need a job they help you out with that. Anything that you do.”

Liberati said the fitness program is about molding the body and the mind.

“I see the attitudes that are changed — the leadership skills that are developed over time, their confidence.”

Gabby Dominguez joined Steve’s Club about seven months ago.

“It’s really life-changing, doing CrossFit,” said Gabby, 14.

Since she started the program, Gabby said she has learned a lot. “I’ve learned to work harder in everything I do.”

Her brother, 17-year-old Dominic Dominguez said his parents are happy he’s going to the gym. “It keeps me out of trouble and it keeps me from doing what other kids are doing,” he said, adding that  he’s also started cooking his own breakfast every day since he learned about the paleo foods diet from Steve’s Club.

The paleo diet prescribes that modern humans should go back to eating real, whole unprocessed foods that our prehistoric ancestors ate.

A paleo foods business is born, organically

Working out at Steve’s Club is free for kids from ages 13 to 18. Some of the same young people who sweat at the gym also help support the facility by working at Liberati’s wholesome eating business, Steve’s PaleoGoods.

Liberati said when he put the CrossFitters on a “paleo challenge” back in 2008, they complained that school lunches weren’t a good fit for the diet.

“So I put together some beef jerky, nuts and berries in a bag, and I vacuum-sealed it. They liked it, they kept asking me for it.”

The ad hoc healthy eating plan took off. “We quickly formed a business around it and said, ‘OK, I think we’re on to something here, and we could use this to help keep the wheels turning and fund our club,'” Liberati explained. “And it turned into a really good business.”

Chaparro is one of the CrossFit devotees who also works at Steve’s PaleoGoods. Before starting the job, he said he didn’t really know the definition of a paleo diet.

“I knew it was something healthy,” he said.

Now Chaparro said he’s leaving the junk food behind and is following the healthier diet and the CrossFit workout.

CrossFit pushes kids to achieve goals beyond the gym

Gabby Dominguez said she feels better about herself now that she is eating better and getting exercise.

Chaparro agreed.

He said he knows many people have negative thoughts about the place he grew up.

“People think bad about Camden. And, just like anything else, once you live through it or live in it, it’s just regular,” he said. But practicing CrossFit through Steve’s Club has actually helped him deal with his tough surroundings.

“CrossFit keeps you in that mindset to keep going. Like when you’re doing the middle of a workout, it’s hard and you just want to quit … you know you can’t because you’re right there — you’re almost done,” Chaparro said. “So when you live in Camden, you can’t think, ‘OK, I’m going to fall into this pressure cause everyone else is doing it.”

Instead, Chaparro said, he has his own mindset, “I’m going to just keep on my goals cause I’ve got something to shoot for.”

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