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Ossington gym's outreach program helps homeless youth

Dhani Oks and Sohail Bastani were two guys with a passion for Crossfit and a dream - that they could find someone worthy to use their gym, the Academy of Lions, in the down times. "Most clients train morning or evening, so the gym is fairly empty during the day," said Mr. Oks of the three-year-old spot at Dundas and Ossington. "It always struck me as a bit of a shame."

In the fall of 2009, Ashley Holland, a mentorship facilitator at Eva's Phoenix, a shelter for homeless youth, was trying to find a way to bring fitness to her charges. In a twist worthy of a hipster rom-com, Ms. Holland mentioned her quest to a waiter at the Gladstone Hotel, who tipped her off to Mr. Oks and Mr. Bastani's mission.

"I approached Dhani and within two weeks we started," said Ms. Holland. "It was amazing."

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The Academy of Lions has been holding training sessions for Eva's residents ever since. Now, they've expanded to include some gym classes and teams from St. Mary's Catholic Secondary School. Instead of charging fees, they operate on the barter system. "We never got a loan, didn't have a lot of money to play with," said Mr. Oks. "This could be a way to get our needs met, while taking care of some social needs." The Eva's youth and a few interns from St. Mary's keep the gym organized and clean, as well as helping out coaches and pitching in with marketing projects.

Toronto's homeless have inflated rates of just about every health problem, but fixing that is complicated. "It's not just about access to gyms," says Ms. Holland. "There are self-esteem pieces there, too." Sometimes, when she gives out free passes to the YMCA, shelter residents report feeling intimidated: they think their clothes or shoes aren't nice enough, or they're shy about big gym etiquette. Academy of Lions, though, has an unpretentious atmosphere, with routines chalked onto concrete-block walls. Having techie workout clothes here seems far less important than challenging yourself.

Long-time friends Mr. Bastani and Mr. Oks are promoters of Crossfit, a short, high-intensity workout modelled partially on police training. Clients sweat over hard-core, old-fashioned exercises such as one-legged squats and medicine ball tosses.

For some, the benefits go beyond the physical. Every month or so, the Academy runs a week-long boot camp for Phoenix residents. Participants must arrive at the gym promptly at 7 a.m., no excuses. Ms. Holland and Mr. Bastani recall one young man who showed up late for the first two days of boot camp. Mr. Bastani was firm - since the youth couldn't follow the rules, he would have to drop out, and sign up for another session when he was ready to commit. Instead, the 20-year-old showed up bright and early for the rest of the week. Soon, he was working out enthusiastically in the afternoons, too, and encouraging other Eva's kids to come along. When Virgin Mobile sponsored a fundraiser, he stepped to the forefront of the organizing committee. "Public speaking, things you would never imagine," said Ms. Holland. "He's moved out, he's living independently, which is huge." He still exercises at the Academy, where paying clients make an effort to come in and ask the Eva's kids to spot them, treating them like any other gym rat.

Money for all this mostly comes from Mr. Oks and Mr. Bastani, but the Academy now has established an official foundation for these programs and related events. It's another chance for the teens to learn responsibility: for one concert at the Garrison, a Dundas West bar, Eva's residents designed fundraising t-shirts, and on Jan. 8, St. Mary's students will solicit pledges for a Crossfit Challenge to raise money for new weight equipment at the gym.

"My parents don't have too much money," says St. Mary's student Kate Kazlovich, 17, who came here from Belarus a year and a half ago and lives with her mom, a hotel cleaner, and her father, a truck driver. She'd like to take civil engineering at the University of Waterloo next year, but the cost of residence might be a barrier. She's saving for tuition with an after-school job at Tim Hortons, but still finds time to play GTA all-star ultimate Frisbee, as well as volleyball. Ms. Kazlovich is also doing an internship at the Academy, which involves some cleaning, but also learning Mr. Oks's training technique, and making videos for the website. "I'm learning how the business works," she says.

Working after school is a financial must for most St. Mary's students, says Rasa Augaitis, athletic director for the school at Bloor and Dundas West. Its population draws heavily from immigrant and low-income families, so economic concerns make joining a team a big time commitment. "We're not a school that does well in sports because we don't have kids who do club athletics," says Ms. Augaitis. Besides, when asked about the state of the school's gym equipment, Ms. Augaitis just lets out a little laugh. With luck, the St. Mary's gym will soon have a set up like similar to the Academy of Lions, with low-cost, easy-to-use items that don't wear out.

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For the Academy of Lions, St. Mary's and Eva's, it's a win-win-win: a tidy gym, healthy bodies and a more even playing field.

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