This Local Trainer Is Making Fitness More Accessible in Underserved Philly Neighborhoods

Wylie Belasik helps returning citizens become fitness coaches through his nonprofit UliftU.

UliftU coaches Samir Aaron (left), Jesse Dawson (second from left) and Arthur McDaniels (right) with founder Wylie Belasik. / Photograph by Morgan Smith

This is Belasik’s story, in his own words.

In my 12 years of working for what I call “sport as a tool for social change” nonprofits, I became frustrated by the lack of opportunities that existed for people coming home from prison. I met many individuals who had such a drive to contribute to their communities, but couldn’t move their lives forward because they had a record. Although their sentences had technically “ended,” they really hadn’t.

Then, in 2016, I became more involved with the fitness industry and noticed another disparity existed — and still exists: those for whom fitness is a privilege, and those for whom fitness can actually serve to save their lives.

When I bought Subversus Fitness (then CrossFit Center City) in 2017, I thought that if we say we want to deliberately engage marginalized and underserved populations, we have to figure out a way to create space for and empower individuals representing those groups to become the coaches and leaders — ­otherwise, it’s not going to work. I can’t walk into North Philadelphia as a white guy from Chester County and say, “Hey, I want to run free classes and get you involved.” I don’t have an authentic connection to the community, and I would be taking up space that should be occupied by others.

So I launched my nonprofit, UliftU, alongside Subversus. UliftU helps train both currently incarcerated and returned citizens for careers as professional fitness coaches. They start at $25 per hour and lead free all-ages classes every week at recreation centers in areas­ of North Philadelphia with the highest incidence of chronic disease and the lowest life expectancy — neighborhoods­ in which many of our graduates have grown up. And since this past June, our ULift-Youth program has connected teens currently in the juvenile justice system with fitness and life skills like teamwork and accountability.­

Not only is this all a path to stable employment with us and other gyms, but weight lifting and strength training benefit metabolic health, self-esteem and self-confidence for those engaging in the workouts. UliftU graduates become certified fitness trainers, so when they spearhead conversations about health and wellness in their neighborhoods, they bring trust coupled with expertise. They’re showing their communities that they’re the subject-matter experts. It’s powerful when people can see themselves represented in the person leading them — and that can help make a lasting impact.

Published as “Fit to Lead” in the Be Well Philly 2022 print issue.