Lift for Life Gym is a 2018 and 2022 SOS Grantee offers St. Louis city children a safe enriching after-school environment in which to strengthen their bodies, enrich their minds, develop healthy social relationships and learn to make positive life choices. This is their story.
“Hello, I’m Taneshia.” A giggle erupts from the otherwise flat delivery of the line, and the 10-year-old ducks her chin. “Wait – hold on,” she says.
The girl clears her throat, throws her tiny shoulders back and lifts her head.
With a big-toothed grin, she begins again, “Hello! I’m Taneshia, I’m 10 and I’m a weightlifter!”
Her declaration would be met with surprise if she were saying it anywhere else. But here, inside a worn, brick building on Cass Avenue in North St. Louis, where other youngsters with equally slender frames lift barbells that stand taller than their kneecaps, it makes perfect sense.
Lift for Life Gym has been for years turning kids like Taneshia into national champs in the world of youth weight lifting. The program has produced 46 national youth champions since 1999.
Taneshia herself has been to nationals twice, returning home with three bronze medals this past June. And her coaches see more awards in her future.
On the surface, Lift for Life Gym is no different from your average summer camp or after school program.
Inside the brown building, which looks like an old, repurposed auto-body shop, kids play tag and bounce basketballs – and yes, lift weights that are bigger than their heads.
Ask the youngsters why they are here, and what they like about the gym, and their answers are typical: Kelechi, 13, says, “We get to go places.” The Science Center and circus, for instance. For Taneshia, the answer is similar: “It’s fun,” she says. Besides, if she weren’t at the gym, she’d probably be “sitting at home.”
But that’s the other thing about this unassuming place that has become an afternoon home for hundreds of at-risk kids. Give Kelechi and Taneshia five to 10 years, and their answers will likely be different.
Because in truth, this experience is anything but typical for kids like them, who are growing up in some of the most dangerous parts of one of the most crime-ridden cities in America.
In time, they will see things, hear things. There will be drugs, guns and neighborhood disputes that turn deadly. They will face two distinct, divergent paths for their future and will need to decide: Which one is for
It’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll reach that crossroads – and whether they’ll come out on the winning side.
That’s where Lift for Life Gym carries out its most noble and idealistic mission: under a mask of barbells and basketballs, fun and learning, this humble afterschool program is literally trying to save young kids’ lives.
The idea is to act as a guidepost for the kids as they navigate that crucial crossroads. Get there first and show them a shining path of possibilities – before the kids realize they face a choice. “Because if they can see it, they can dream it,” Executive Director Joseph Miller explains. “They start to think, ‘Wow, I can really be something.’
Just ask Antwan, 17, who can describe the stark reality of his streets with the benefit of age and hindsight. Antwan, an elite lifter and mentor to others at the gym, started the program as an overweight 10-year-old who wanted to lose weight.
He chose the grueling road of hard work, sweat and dedication, and it led to where he is now: ranked third in the nation for youth weightlifting for boys age 17 and under. He set his first national record at age 14. Other records have followed, and colleges are noticing.
The junior at Confluence Preparatory Academy is already fielding calls from recruiters. That’s big. It means he will likely get to choose where he wants to go to college, when many kids in his neighborhood don’t have college as an option at all.
But it easily could have gone the other way.
Through high school, there have been temptations – offers to go to late night parties, to get involved with the wrong crowd. Antwan feels lucky that he always has a built-in excuse: “I have practice in the morning.”
Of course, it isn’t just about choosing to go to bed early. It’s about avoiding that other path – the one that not immediately, but inevitably – leads to one of two outcomes: “Jail or death,” he says, matter-of-factly.
It’s a hard thing to understand if you don’t live it, day in and day out. But for these kids, that brown, brick building houses hope.
Just one block to the east of it, earlier in July, a 35-year-old cashier was
fatally shot in the head after an argument broke out at the Salama Supermarket overnight. A month earlier, another block over and down, a 37-year-old man was shot dead outside the Domino’s Pizza. That murder occurred just after 5 p.m. – broad daylight for summer in St. Louis.
The year before, seven homicides fanned out in a semi-circle within a five block radius of the gym, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch homicide map from that year. The neighborhoods where some of these boys and girls live are far, far worse.
“Every day is a challenge for our kids,” Miller says. “Our kids face a different world than kids do out in the county. We have kids on the team who are literally lifting for their lives.
Lift For Life Gym is a refuge in every sense of the word.
Inside the building’s non-descript facade, laughter bounces off the gymnasium walls, almost as loud as the clank of barbells landing on the linoleum floor. Weight lifting was the sole activity when Marshall Cohen founded the gym in 1988.
And while Olympic lifting and power lifting remain at the core of the program, kids can also participate in basketball, yoga and other activities. There is also a summer camp, tutoring and mentoring, field trips and a community garden. The gym’s in-house cafeteria serves around 250 hot meals weekly to the kids. The gym is typically open from 3 to 6 p.m. each day – the hours when kids, according to studies, are most prone to getting into trouble.
Through the weightlifting program alone, the opportunities are vast. With each competition comes a trip to a new place: Michigan, Georgia, maybe even Colombia or Argentina.
Antwan, and another mentor figure at the gym, Jerome, who is ranked number one in the nation as a 17-year-old male lifter, are in the midst of competing in the Youth Olympic Trials. As the medals pile high, so does the confidence level of these young competitors. Antwan appreciates that in this sport, you tend to see a direct payoff for hard work.
The more you lift, the more you CAN lift. It makes him think he can apply the same mechanics to life in general.
And for those who might be inclined to focus just on sports, the staff here makes it clear: learning comes first.
Antwan’s coach picks him up from school each day, and he and his teammates aren’t allowed to practice until they’ve done their homework. That’s the drill, every day, no excuses. That’s another way the Lift for Life Gym provides an anchor in a storm.
“For a lot of these kids, this is the most consistent thing in their life,” Miller says.
The program runs entirely off grants, like the one received from the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, and donations. There is no city, state or United Way funding. Everything is free for the kids and their families – the travel, the hotels, the competition fees and the day-to-day field trips and activities. That makes these funding sources crucial.
The $10,000 SOS grant will be split between the weightlifting and summer programs, as well as an effort to get the kids back-to-school uniforms and supplies.
“You’ll ask a kid why he didn’t go to school last week, and he’ll say, ‘It’s because I don’t have a uniform,'” Miller explains. Lift for Life Gym wants to eliminate that as an obstacle. In a visit to the gym, one can see the efforts paying off, even with the younger kids.
The proof is in kids like Kelechi and Taneshia, who don’t quite realize it yet, but are starting to take their first, small steps down the same, shining path that Antwan and Jerome chose. At first, Kelechi didn’t want to come to the gym. His mom had described it as “a boot camp.”
But it didn’t take long for him to become a regular. He sees Antwan and Jerome as older, bigger versions of himself. He says he enjoys learning from them. And he sees the difference between what he is doing, and how others are spending their time.
Kids who don’t have anything to do, their afternoons are spent “goofing off,” he says.
He saw a bunch of kids recently, running around, shooting off fireworks for no reason. That doesn’t appeal to him. But lifting at the club? That brings a smile to his face.
“I think the program speaks for itself,” Miller says. “It introduces kids to new experiences; it keeps them out of trouble. It pushes them to work hard, to have confidence, to dream big.” They deserve that,” he says. “Every kid deserves that.”
Narrative developed and written for Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund by Jennifer Mann 618 Creative . Photos by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative.