Laura Pritchard loves creating inclusive environments. She grew up in rural Southwest Virginia and attended the University of Virginia for both undergrad and graduate school where she was the Strength and Conditioning Coach for two National Championship tennis teams. After her sophomore year Laura took off a year to participate in Mission Year, a year-long urban ministry program. Upon finishing her graduate degree in Exercise Physiology, she came on staff with Mission Year and moved back to her Mission Year neighborhood in Atlanta, GA. This past January she founded Urban Perform (UP), a non-profit gym serving the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods in Atlanta. She is an avid nail painter and enjoys running, lifting and hanging out with friends and neighbors.
Plywood People: Can you tell us about the gym you started in West Atlanta?
Laura Pritchard: At Urban Perform (UP) our goal is to be a safe place that promotes physical health, contributing to the emotional, economical and spiritual health of the neighborhood. We use exercise to promote upward movement for the next athlete, the over-weight, the single parent, the elderly, the family, the kids on the corner and those looking for a place to belong.
We have a three phase plan for UP. Currently in Phase 1 we are focusing on elementary and middle school aged kids and women. As an extension of the New Life SAY Yes! Center, a neighborhood afterschool program, we provide exercise classes for neighborhood kids as well as Zumba classes for the women in our neighborhood. Phase 2 begins in April with a focus on adults and seniors. Starting April 9th, we will have open gym hours for the entire community and in May we will have mid-morning exercise sessions for senior adults. In June Phase 3 will begin with the addition of services for teens and sport specific summer training camps for kids of all ages. Collegiate and professional athletes will work with the kids for development of sport specific skills.
Ultimately, we plan to have services available for every demographic in our neighborhood by June.
Plywood People: What was your process? How did you get your start?
Laura: My dream of opening a nonprofit gym in a low-income urban neighborhood began when I was exposed to exercise and nutrition injustice during my Mission Year in Atlanta. I never fathomed that it would come to fruition less than two years after I finished graduate school. Though I had dreamed in detail of a nonprofit urban gym, I did not act on this dream until the pastor of my church approached me about starting one in the warehouse of our church. He said, “Laura, as you know for the last nine months the men in our neighborhood have been voicing their desire to have a safe place to exercise for themselves and their families. So I think you should start fundraising and make this a reality for the neighborhood.” I was completely shocked and not ready, but the Lord had already set out my path. The meeting with my Pastor was in May and I started fundraising in August. By the end of December we had raised $10,000, became an expansion of the New Life SAY Yes! Center, received equipment from the Miami Dolphins, hired a local contractor, hired neighbors and started remodeling the warehouse facility. In January we began offering services to the elementary and middle school kids in the afterschool program; a single-mother and neighborhood resident got certified to teach Zumba; Zumba classes started; we received an equipment grant from GoodSports and the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation.
Though this process was fast, it was not necessarily easy. I received an extremely large amount of help from my friends and family, who donated their services in all fields: business, graphic design, development, event planning, architecture, website design, accounting and fundraising. UP was started out of the voices of my neighbors and the support and belief of my friends and family.
Plywood People: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in the process of the start-up?
Laura: I have learned and re-learned so many valuable lessons in the past nine months. I would say the biggest or newest lesson I have learned is the importance of taking advantage of every single opportunity. I have probably stayed up later working on projects for UP than I ever did working on papers in college. The desire to have a nonprofit that is truly making a difference in the community is boiling in my veins and makes me so excited I cannot sleep. A few months ago I heard this quotation that completely describes how I feel about UP, “When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe you will be successful.” I have cold called and emailed companies, set up meetings with complete strangers, made list after list of things that need to be done all while working another full-time job. In all of these situations I have both succeeded and failed, but no opportunity has been missed. Taking the time to take advantage of the small leads has brought me to opportunities bigger than I could have imagined.
Plywood People: In diving in, what’s a piece of advice you’d offer to someone wanting to start something new in their community?
Laura: Let the native voices in the community guide you. Almost anyone can walk into a new neighborhood and see things that need to be fixed or that can improve the community, but none of these changes will be successful unless the native residents desire the change as well.
It is important to listen to the voices of long-term residents. They have had the opportunity to see the community go through many changes and will have wisdom to share about what has been successful, what has failed and why. If you can find the support of your community, your neighbors will welcome the new project with open arms, thus, helping the project be successful. Listening is key, but you must also take action. It is important to listen and then move forward with the guidance of other community residents.
Plywood People: What have you seen happen in the community so far as a result of your gym starting?
Laura: This is definitely my favorite question. I love sharing the stories of my neighbors and UP! Here are my current three favorites stories.
Our Zumba instructor Billie Walker, shared a beautiful quotation at our opening celebration that captures our impact perfectly, “This gym tells everyone in this community: You are loved. You matter. You are important.”
One of our middle schoolers has gone from complaining that we push him too hard at the gym and missing class on purpose, to running into class pleading that he is not late and begging to participate. Just last week, I walked in and said, “Are you ready” to which he promptly responded, “Ms. Laura, I was born ready!”
A couple weeks ago, the University of Virginia Softball team came to UP and hosted a free clinic for all the neighborhood kids. During this time the kids played games and learned softball skills with the team. The team signed posters for our kids and the kids signed posters for the team! I had the honor of taking a group of the kids to two softball games and watching their worlds grow. Each kid went on the field, in the dugout and on the bus. The kids could not stop talking about the team and the team cannot stop talking about our kids! We have already received emails from UVA Softball players asking if they can come help in the summer. Not only are the lives of our neighbors changing, but the lives outside our neighborhood are growing as well.
UP is truly a place where everyone is welcome!