Fitness promoter connects neighborhood moms to a healthier lifestyle

Raheem Baraka

There were no widening tunnels with portals of white light at the end. No slideshows of life dancing before his eyes. No reassuring male voice whispering adages of encouragement and solace. Raheem Baraka, 33, was simply dead—until he wasn’t.

Twelve years ago, at Beth Israel Hospital in Needham, he flat-lined.

“I was out,” he said. “I was totally out.”

Baraka doesn’t recall his initial thoughts after coming to, when his foggy eyes met the equally foggy faces of his mother, aunt, and niece, but, knowing himself, he can make a good guess.

“I can imagine in my mind at the time I was like, ‘What is going on, why am I here?’” he said. “This is a person in his early 30s—invincible—with a johnny on.”

Baraka, in fact, wasn’t invincible, and, lying in his bed at Beth Israel, he probably should have known it.
He had the autoimmune disease Lupus, and a hazardous trinity of unhealthy lifestyle choices, misplaced male machismo, and a lack of affordable healthcare meant he had for months let his body deteriorate without virtually any resistance.

A few weeks earlier in Hollywood, Fla., north of Miami, Baraka was driving his silver Mitsubishi Montero to a meeting when he passed out and veered off the road. He woke up in a ditch, dazed, confused, but knowing for the first time he had to get himself medical help.

It was the culmination of a months-long psychological war against his body, which was producing a continuous 101-degree fever and a blanket of malaise.

Baraka has since recovered and is now the executive director and founder of Baraka Community Wellness, a fledgling non-profit that provides nutrition workshops, fitness classes, health coaches, and social support for what the organization coins “at-risk” individuals.

His team targets families in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and a host of other neighborhoods around the city. Baraka, a Northeastern grad and former marketing powerhouse, identified what he says is a glaring inefficiency in the United States’ healthcare industry: the absence of prevention programs. “It’s those people that are disenfranchised, of color, of poor economic statuses,” he said, munching down on a spring roll dipped in a rich peanut sauce, “that are contributing to the majority of cost in this country. Hypertension, diabetes, obesity—these can be prevented in many cases.”

Though Lupus is a non-preventable condition, a lifetime of nutrition-less food options—fast food burgers and pizza in college; fried chicken, microwave dinners, and ravioli from the can as a child—and infrequent, meaningless trips to the gym exacerbated Baraka’s health woes.

“It’s not a social norm,” he said, referring to the get-full-be-satisfied culture in which he grew up. “I didn’t think about it at all. There was no thought about food or activity or exercise other than going to the gym and working the mirror muscles––that’s about it. Being in your 20s and early 30s that’s all you think about. You don’t think about the interior, you think about the exterior.”

Growing up primarily in Roxbury, the son of a single mother, Baraka often came back from school to an empty home and developed a high degree of self-sufficiency.

He was also whip-smart. At six months old, he was using a stash of charcoal-gray pencils to draw identifiable images. At a year, he was drawing trees, bees, birds. Soon after, he moved onto more complex drawings. Aerial-view maps of cities—complete with transit lines, houses, streets, stores, and foliage—were a particular favorite. The intricacy of the designs blew his pediatrician away.

“The doctor told me he was probably at a genius level,” his mother, Cerci Hernandez, said. “He was way ahead of his age—he was always a visionary.”

That image jives with Baraka himself, who pinpoints entrepreneurialism as the key to understanding his life journey. An early manifestation of this came at the age of around 18, when, according to Hernandez, he set his sights on monetizing his artistic talents.

“At 18 or 19, he was producing quality work from a soap screening press that he designed and built himself,” she said. “He was very creative, looking for ways to make things better, make a dollar. He’s an entrepreneur and always had the vision of doing something great.”

It’s this self-drive, determination, and mental acuity that have allowed Baraka to reinvent himself as a health guru. He began working out after seeing an ad in the newspaper for Mike’s Fitness in Jamaica Plain. Enamored with the setting, he dropped the prospect of moving back to Miami for good and took a janitorial position at Mike’s.

“I will do anything, from sweeping the floors, to wiping the counters,” he begged the gym’s owner. He went from a lucrative marketing and promotions career to making $10 an hour just to “be in that culture as a constant connection to that environment.”

Baraka practically inhaled books on nutrition and wellness. After gaining a sizable reputation for his holistic training sessions at Mike’s, he spearheaded a new fitness program at Mass General Hospital. And now, just three years after getting his start at Mike’s, he finds himself building a community of healthy young mothers and children who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the information and means necessary to maintain the balanced lifestyle he was missing for the first three-fourths of his own life.

With funding from the Boston Foundation to help launch his dream, Baraka assembled a team of counselors, nurses, nutritionists, fitness trainers to launch Healthy Moms, Healthy Kids— a signature program aimed at low income single moms and their children. Now in its second summer, the program is serving over 300 women and their kids, according to the Boston Foundation, which points to Baraka’s effort as a model for a grassroots-led start-up in Dorchester. Hospitals and other clinics are taking notice of his model, which stresses prevention as a way to save lives— and money.

“He’s self-motivated, he’s driven, he’s a perfectionist,” Hernandez said. “Things have to be perfect for him. He doesn’t like things not to be of excellence. Things are pretty much, when he’s doing something, he’s putting his all into it. 101 percent.”