Foundation Fitness Continues Community Engagement During Pandemic

Guest post written by James Arvantes

Foundation Fitness, formerly known as City Fitness Gym, has been a part of Cleveland Park for nearly 30 years, opening its doors for the first time in 1993.

The independently owned and operated gym, which occupies the second floor of a building in Sam’s Park and Shop, stands out as a stalwart in the heart of Cleveland Park, serving as a current and former fitness home for hundreds, if not thousands, of local residents who have trained there over the years. It has in the process become known as the Little Gym That Could, the oldest and one of the most successful businesses in the history of Sam’s Park and Shop.

Dega Schembri, co-owner of Foundation Fitness, stands on the gym’s sanded and refinished wood floor.

In 2013, the District of Columbia’s City Council issued a proclamation recognizing the gym as “the longest standing independently owned gym in Washington, D.C.”

“We are a small gym, but we do everything the big box gyms do,” said Dega Schembri, co-owner of Foundation Fitness. “And we do it with compassion and love.”

Foundation Fitness, like other gyms throughout the United States, closed in mid-March as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. While some gyms have remained dormant, the Little Gym That Could has pressed on, making scheduled physical improvements in the gym and holding more than 65 classes throughout the week on its own YouTube channel.

The classes, taught by Dega and other Foundation Fitness instructors, include yoga, flexibility and strength training, aerobics, step aerobics and cardio kickboxing among others. By holding classes on social media, Foundation Fitness has been able to maintain connections with its members and the Cleveland Park neighborhood as a whole.

Cleveland Park resident Neil Proto, a member of the gym for nearly 20 years, tunes into the YouTube channel on a periodic basis, taking flexibility, weight training and yoga classes.

“I run daily or take long walks,” said Proto, a former lawyer and former Georgetown University adjunct professor, who now writes for a living. “I try to supplement that with something in addition to running and walking. I turn to their programming to see what they have and use it in that sense.”

Proto, who lives about a block from Foundation Fitness, describes the on-line classes as “very practical and useful,” an extension of the gym’s community outreach.

Anyone with an internet connection can access the classes on YouTube.

“I don’t have a problem if someone in the neighborhood goes for a channel and picks my class,” said Dega. “Hopefully, it will encourage people to come in when we reopen.”

Foundation Fitness is also lending members gym equipment such as weights and steps during the shutdown to help them stay in shape.

In terms of physical improvements, Foundation Fitness sanded and refinished its suspended wood floor, a floor made for high-impact activities such as aerobics. The floor improvements resulted from a $4,000 Robust Retail Grant from District Bridges, a nonprofit organization that promotes community engagement and economic development opportunities among individuals, businesses and organizations.

The gym also placed aluminum plates on the lower parts of the walls in the weight room and the women’s locker room to prevent dents, holes and scratches on the walls.

“We won’t have to patch up and paint those areas anymore,” Dega said.

In addition, the gym put a large screen television on the wall in the fitness room tuned exclusively to the gym’s YouTube channel, giving members the option of taking virtual classes when Foundation Fitness reopens.  Even when the gym reopens, the District government may limit the number of members who can come into the gym at one time for safety reasons, making the virtual classes an even more important way of providing classes.

“My thinking is we can offer a yoga class at noon with five people in the gym through the YouTube channel, another class at 1 p.m. with five people, another at 2 p.m. and so on,” explained Dega. “This is one way we can adapt.”

Fitness Fiesta

Dega’s involvement with the gym dates back to 1996 when her company Fit Physique bought City Fitness, three years after the gym opened. In 2016, City Fitness brought in the owner of Foundation Fitness as a co-owner, leading to the renamed Foundation Fitness.

“We needed to attach ourselves to something a little bigger than we were while still staying small and independently owned,” Dega explained.

Each spring Foundation Fitness holds a Fitness Fiesta for members and prospective members that also includes a raffle to raise money for Girls on the Run. This year Dega and her staff were planning a May 2 Fitness Fiesta that would also serve as a grand re-opening, highlighting the improvements in the gym while also raising money for Girls on the Run.

This would include a promotion for Girls on the Run — a pay it forward campaign that allows new members to forgo the usual initiation fee of $125 and pay any amount they want, which is then donated to Girls on the Run. Dega was also going to put a collage of photos throughout the gym for the May 2 celebration, recalling fond memories of past years.

There were other planned activities. The neon sign in front of Foundation Fitness still says City Fitness, even though the gym’s name changed four years ago. Dega and her staff planned to have the sign taken down and replaced with a new Foundation Fitness sign during the party, a symbolic move that would help to cement the name Foundation Fitness into the hearts and minds of Cleveland Park residents.

As Dega explained, “A lot of people are very attached to the name City Fitness.”

“We know that when we take that sign down and put the new one up, it will be a big deal for our members and our staff,” she commented.

The May 2 re-opening never happened, of course, because of the shutdown.

“It never crossed my mind we would not have this celebration,” said Dega. “It was really hard for me to let go of.”

Dega now plans to hold an “alone/together” celebration on Saturday, May 29 on YouTube Live, which will entail the replacement of the City Fitness sign. In a nod to the gym’s longevity, the City Fitness sign will hang above the gym’s deck doors on its Zen Garden Deck. (Foundation Fitness may be the only gym in Washington, D.C. with a deck for exercising.)

The hanging of the City Fitness sign on the outside deck is also symbolic, honoring the gym’s past and celebrating the new while reminding the neighborhood that the gym continues to serve Cleveland Park as a caring, community-based business.

Positive Thinking

Dega, ever the optimist, has found a “silver lining” in the current shutdown, saying, for example, that the contractors were able to complete work in the gym without disturbing the members, something that would not have been possible if the gym remained open. The YouTube channel has also enabled the gym to highlight its instructors and its myriad classes.

But at the same time the shutdown has been difficult for both gym members and staff. Before the shutdown, Proto worked out at Foundation Fitness on a daily basis, often spending an hour or an hour and 15 minutes at a time at the gym.

“I miss the camaraderie – the people you say hello to and talk to,” said Proto, who describes the Foundation Fitness staff as “very professional and sociable.”

Dega described the shutdown as “very disorienting because our place of business is such a vibrant community center.”

“It is a business where you are interacting with people, and people are interacting with each other the entire time from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” she said.

“To be suddenly cut off from that is very disorienting,” Dega added.

Trying to ascertain the future is also disorienting, creating a great deal of anxiety.

“When we reopen, what is that going to look like?” Dega asked rhetorically. “How are we going to accommodate our members? The bigger question is how to attract new people to the gym when they have such economic challenges.”

Dega and her staff have always been able to count on support from the Cleveland Park Community, one part of the future that will not change.

“We are not just a business to our members,” Dega said. “Our members feel an almost shared ownership about who we are, and because of that we continue to have amazing support in the neighborhood.”

Proto agrees with Dega’s assessment, calling Foundation Fitness a “wonderful neighborhood institution that contributes serious vitality to Cleveland Park.”

“It has a very dedicated staff and I mean that professionally and personally,” he said.