To InnerCity Weightlifting, fitness without food a surefire non-starter; owner, nutrition firm work on issue

CEO of Nutre Meal Plans Valentino Perrina, left, and ICW founder Jon Feinman posed with two of Nutre’s prepackaged meals. Nutre is donating around 1,500 meals to the nonprofit gym. Daniel Sheehan photo

Last Tuesday, Valentino Perrina, the CEO of Nutre Meal Plans, delivered several boxes containing more than 200 pre-prepared meals to InnerCity Weightlifting’s Dorchester gym, the second of several deliveries planned as part of a new relationship between the North Shore-based nutrition startup and the Fields Corner-area fitness nonprofit. 

For ICW founder Jon Feinman, forging a partnership based on food and fitness “made perfect sense.” For Perrina, it also represents an opportunity to actively make a difference in the lives of Black and brown people.

“I’m a white business owner from the North Shore,” said Perrina. “So, it’s like, do I speak on my social media platforms? What can I do? We’re always about ‘actions speak louder than words,’ so we were trying to look for a local company that’s getting involved in the community and trying to help people as much as possible and better people, like we are. So, these guys have a perfect alignment because they’re trying to help people become their best selves, and we’re trying to do the same thing –that’s our mission.”

Feinman added that food insecurity is often a real issue among the roughly 200 people in the weightlifting program, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds and have spent time incarcerated.

“We’ve got guys who come and work out and a lot of people that we have at the start of the program, they don’t have employment. So, you know, food is not a guarantee the same way it is for me. And other times we also have people come in and want to work out, but they’re too hungry and don’t. The opportunity to partner with a prepared food company that’s nutritious, from our perspective, it made a ton of sense.”

Feinman started ICW in 2010 after an experience with Americorps in which he worked with current and former gang members in East Boston gave him “an incredible opportunity to meet people as individuals, as humans, rather than just statistics.”

After “hitting a ceiling” in a brief personal training stint, he decided he wanted to start a program that made an impact on a deeper level.

“It was initially just a weight training program,” explained Feinman. “Then you start doing the work and you’ve got people who are shot and paralyzed, people going in and out of jail.”

Feinman’s eyes were opened to the “daily life complications” that can make it hard for someone to see a future. “College, education, careers; anyone wants that. But when your struggles of today are so severe that tomorrow might not exist, you can’t prioritize things that are off in the future.”

As such, the ICW program evolved into a four-stage model built on trust, hope, social capital, and economic mobility. The first two of those values can often be the most important for those who walk through ICW’s doors.

“The gym gives us a reason to connect with someone that society tells us otherwise to avoid, to earn their trust. And it gives us a place to deepen that relationship, to put options on the table, to be a partner with someone so that they don’t feel like they have to solve any problem alone. And that starts to lead to hope for the future.”

ICW provides opportunities for members to attain the latter two – social capital and economic mobility – through its personal training career track, whereby trainees can become certified practitioners.

“Not only do they gain economic mobility from that as they start making anywhere from $20-$80 an hour, it also flips all the power dynamics...it ends up bridging social capital in this really genuine way where people who have been oppressed, historically and today, are taking control of their own narrative. It becomes a platform to amplify someone’s voice and agency. They gain access to these new networks and opportunities, and at the same time they’re changing people’s worldview as to who they are, and the communities they live in.”

Joey Rivera, a 30-year-old ICW member who grew up in the South End, credited the program with “exposing him to things he had no idea about.” One Thanksgiving with nowhere to go, Rivera was invited to a family gathering by another ICW member. Another time, Feinman took Rivera and others surfing. Providing those positive opportunities and building a sense of community make ICW more than just a place to work out, explained Rivera.

“Even sometimes when I was having a hard time finding something to eat, I’d come to the gym and they’d always have donated food – you know, bread, peanut butter and jelly, water – time to look at stuff on the computer, even just community with the guys, coming and hanging out, playing Playstation, having a safe place to be...it’s somewhere to find some positive advice and support.”

Reginald Talbert, a Fields Corner native and Head of Advocacy at ICW, said the program has an ability unlike others to “open doors.” Talbert has been with the organization since its inception in 2010 after leaving a tough situation.

“I had just come home from doing 15 years in prison,” he explained. “It opened doors for me. It put me in a position to get a job, custody of my grandkids, taking care of my family as well as myself. Before I got to ICW, I hadn’t been out of jail for more than 12 months straight my whole life. I got here, they gave me the opportunity, and I haven’t been back in jail since.”

Talbert says he began the process of transforming himself through weight training while incarcerated, even taking some of his younger peers and leading them through a weightlifting regimen. As such, transitioning to a personal trainer track once out of prison came fairly naturally to him; “what we’re doing here, I was already doing in jail,” he noted.

But the success rate at ICW is nearly unmatched; for those who stick with the program, recidivism rates drop from 90 percent to 8 percent. 

Said Talbert: “This program is one program that pretty much does what it says. I’m 54; I’ve been around. This is the only one that the CEO still does what he’s supposed to do...he’s here with us, he’s staying on the course. And if he wasn’t who he was, I wouldn’t still be here, and I would have took all these kids with me. But Jon has done more than the average cat...

“I live in Fields Corner, I’ve been here my whole life. If you’re gonna come in my neighborhood to do something positive for the youth, I’m gonna be right there with you all along – plus I’m gonna make sure you’re doing the right thing for my youth. And he has.”

For Talbert, the biggest difference between ICW and other programs for at-risk youth is that the gym never gives up on kids who might make missteps or show up to training drunk or high. This generation of kids “gets turned down so much, and it’s hard for them to put their trust in someone,” he said.

“Here, the doors are always open, and that’s the best you can do for anybody. If you close the door on me one time, I’m not gonna come back...there’s nothing this organization won’t try to do for you.”