Freeport St. gym aims to get at-risk youth off the streets

A year after a controversial proposal to site a weightlifting facility for at-risk youth in South Boston fell apart, the nonprofit behind the proposal has quietly opened up an office in Dorchester.

In operation since 2010, InnerCity Weightlifting signed a lease for a floor in a Freeport Street building in the spring, and started up in the end of June. But the nonprofit is staying low-key, with no sign outside the building, which is located in the industrial section of Freeport Street. A post office box address is listed on its website.

Part of the heavy emphasis on privacy is due to the nature of the work, the people who run the nonprofit say: The young people they work with have been involved with gangs and there is concern about reprisals.

“In short, what we do is we work with at-risk youth to get them off the streets and into the gym,” said Jon Feinman, the executive director and founder of InnerCity Weightlifting, which also has spaces in Mattapan, Roxbury, and East Boston.

An attempt to lease a space on B Street in South Boston imploded in August 2011, after local elected officials and residents complained that the nonprofit had not reached out to them. South Boston’s state Sen. Jack Hart, who also represents Dorchester, asked them to relocate.

“We ultimately ended up listening to the community and it was unfortunate that our students tend to get labeled before anything happens,” Feinman said this week.

There are 102 students in the program, with a goal to have 200, spread out across the various locations. The program’s budget is $450,000, and its investors include Boston Foundation, the Lenny Zakim Foundation, Northeastern Students for Giving, and the Grand Circle Travel Foundation, among others.

In contrast to what happened in South Boston, Feinman said, he has reached out to local elected officials in the Dorchester area to talk about the program.

State Rep. Marty Walsh, who represents the area of Dorchester where the gym is located, said Feinman runs a “tight program. We need more programs like that,” he added.

Hart said yesterday that the program “seems to be a good concept,” but he added that he had not heard from residents about the new location in Dorchester and he was not sure if people were aware it was there. “I’d be concerned, especially if the neighbors have concerns,” he said.

“I don’t know what kind of outreach they’ve done,” said the senator, “but if they’ve been in there since June without any kind of problem, it seems as though they’re doing a good job. I would expect that these folks will reach out to community groups in the neighborhood to give them some explanation.”

Feinman said one of the biggest issues he faces is that there is a higher demand for the program than he has staff available. According to a promotional flyer, there are 80 students on the waiting list.

In its promotional materials, the program highlights its first student, “Alex,” who enrolled in the program when it was still in its pilot phase. “Since being enrolled, Alex has been shot, hit by a baseball bat, and jumped countless times,” the brochure states.

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the Freeport Street gym had about a dozen people inside, lifting weights or off in a side room, which has computers available for resumes. The walls occasionally shook as weights crashed to the floor.

Feinman made two young people available to talk about the program on the condition that, for reasons of safety, their last names would not be published.

“Billie,” a 25 year old, grew up in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Both parents were drug addicts, and he was raised by his grandmother. In his teens, he was involved in gangs, but, he said, “I got tired of getting shot at.”

Later, he was forced to leave school because his girlfriend got pregnant. He is now the father of two kids, with another on the way. He has held seasonal jobs off and on, he said, and got involved with drugs again because he was worried about paying for food for his family. While he didn’t go into detail, he is currently in court over a drug-related charge.

He connected with the program through a friend of the family, and he’s now in a GED program and trying to find a job. The program offers him a place to network and attempt informational interviews.

Says Billie of Feinman: “He’s been like a brother, a family member, whatever you want to call him.”

“John” is similar to “Billie.” He views the weightlifting and other exercises as a stress reliever. Now 25, he grew up in the Dudley Street area and, after spending four years in jail, is on track to become a trainer at the gym, according to Feinman who added that “John” found the program through a woman who works with the Boston Centers for Youth and Families.

“All of a sudden we have people from different socioeconomic backgrounds talking, interacting with each other in a very positive context,” Feinman said. “It’s not just weight training,” he said. “There’s a support network.”