“Exercise is what we use to get people in the door, but the real joy of UP is to connect with another person and share love—” is the motto of the tiny gym located in the heart of West Atlanta.
The idea of Urban Perform or UP began when residents of English Avenue came together with a common vision for their community: A safe place for their children to exercise. Community and love was the backbone of this neighborhood, so the question wasn’t whether a safe place to exercise was a worthy goal, what the men and women of English Avenue wondered was how their dream would become a reality?
But God had the pieces in place for this vision to become possible. A local pastor knew a young woman named Laura Pritchard Compton. She had all of the credentials to create the exact space the community was envisioning— she used to be an English Avenue resident and now lived in a neighboring community, she had degrees in exercise science and physiology, and she shared the belief that exercise and caring for the body was of utmost importance. Thinking he had the answer to the community’s wish, the pastor approached Laura and asked her if they could talk about what this idea could mean and if she would accept the role of leader and director.
Her immediate reaction was unexpected.
“I was young and scared! My mom talked some sense into me over the phone, she said, ‘Laura, people come to your neighborhood and make long lists of ways it can improve. But now you have an opportunity, where neighbors are asking for a need to be met and you have the education, means, and time to help make it happen. Shame on you if you don’t do it.’ It was a very hard conversion, but she was right,” Laura said.
The next couple of months Laura prayed and wrote down her hopes and dreams of what would make a perfect community gym and then asked the Lord to help her pick up His hopes and dreams of what the community gym should be. Originally, Laura thought she would help her friends create a YMCA since the YMCA already provided affordable exercise for families, but at a brainstorming meeting her English Avenue neighbors explained why that wouldn’t work. “They said that in our community, residents didn’t value exercise,” Laura explained. “And since they didn’t value exercise, residents wouldn’t go through the process of sharing the income to get a gym membership. So instead of sliding income scale base, they suggested a flat rate fee to remove all barriers. From there we started with the first visit free and $2 per visit after that for those 18 and older.”
The next couple of months Laura prayed and wrote down her hopes and dreams of what would make a perfect community gym and then asked the Lord to help her pick up His hopes and dreams of what the community gym should be.
Thankfully, since the community was asking for a place to exercise, trust was already established and UP was able to open its doors in 2012, offering fitness classes to the New Life SAY Yes Center after-school program. The real challenge that came was networking and building connections with other businesses so UP would grow and expand. Laura had a goal that within five years she would know all of the “movers and shakers,” of Atlanta to the point where she would go into any restaurant and someone would know her. She admits that was a lofty goal, but a goal the Good Lord was directing. “I would come home and share these crazy stories of who I met where and my roommate would always say, ‘Wow God has His fingerprints all over this.’ It very much felt out of my hands and like God was just moving it forward each day and I would meet new people in the most random places and ways and they would help further UP,” Laura shared excitedly.
The encounter of new people in random places continued to happen and the vision of Urban Perform blossomed. In 2014, the non-profit gym moved into its very own building, opening six days a week and offering 11 fitness classes throughout the week. But the main theme of UP became inclusivity. Everyone who graced the door of the gym felt they had entered a second home where they could be heard and have worth. “One of our seniors came to one of our celebrations and she told me, you know, I come to Urban Preform to exercise, but I never feel like I’m coming to exercise. I always feel it’s a homecoming like I’m coming to see my family. And that to me means almost more than someone saying they lost 47 pounds, although they are both beautiful, with how I’m wired I’m like oh yes, we’ve done it well,” Laura said excitedly. “You have been loved each day that you came in here, you are known by name. That side of it makes me the most excited.”
Laura served as the Executive Director of Urban Preform from 2012-2016, stepping down to spend more time with her husband and son. Laura knew the Lord was directing this difficult decision, but without her leadership, the threat of UP closing its doors was a real possibility. However God’s fingerprints hadn’t left Urban Preform and He had the pieces in place for the gym’s vision to continue.
God’s fingerprints hadn’t left Urban Preform and He had the pieces in place for the gym’s vision to continue.
The homecoming atmosphere that Laura and the residents of English Avenue worked so hard to create is what made member Samantha Watkins step up to continue the safe foundation UP offered the community. “Laura came to us with the news that we would close our doors at UP on December 31st, 2016. I was crushed. I couldn’t let that happen. Urban Perform helped change my life! I knew the benefits of UP and how it impacted the community.” Samantha shared. “Me and 3 other members and staff volunteered our time to keep UP alive! We had a CEO for a brief part of 2017. When she resigned, I stepped up, because I couldn’t let UP end. I just did what I knew needed to be done to continue the work that would keep Urban Perform in the community,” Samantha said.
Under Samantha’s leadership, the vision of UP remained the same- to provide a safe place for people to be themselves so they can work towards being healthier and living longer lives. Presently, Urban Preform offers group fitness classes 5 days a week—yoga, Zumba, Circuit Training, HIIT, jump rope cardio, strength and toning classes. The UP staff allows modifications in all classes to meet all fitness levels of their members.
But modifications in fitness classes aren’t the only form of support Urban Perform extends to its community and volunteer Maureen Sanchez has seen this first-hand. “I volunteer because it helps me be consistent in my own work-outs. But mostly I feel like the UP group has been a support group for me through a lot of changes that I’ve had over the years,” Maureen said. “There were numerous times where I came in and had a cry session before starting class. I just felt like it was safe enough to be able to do that. I’ve been able to get support and advice that really helps me get through things.”
Maureen and Samantha’s testimonies prove that God listened to Laura and the residents of English Avenue six years ago and gave them the desires of their heart. Today, UP is led by Samantha and three other residents and has become a community led gym. The gym’s purpose has grown into more than just a place to exercise. It’s become a home. It’s become a safe place for people to express their individuality. And it’s a become a haven for the broken.
But perhaps the most profound role Urban Perform has had in Atlanta is that it not only encourages children, men, and woman to get up…it has inspired all to rise up.
Whether you’re seeking a place to better your health or second family, you can find out more about this amazing non-profit through Facebook, Instagram, or by calling (678) 341-0393.