When Joel Ramsey was incarcerated, he turned to fitness for his mental and physical well-being.
“During my time in prison, fitness was my therapy. I used to train myself two hours a day, six times a week just for mental health purposes and physical health,” the 35-year-old, who was incarcerated for 11 years, says.
Upon his release, he went to a halfway house, where he was recruited for a program through A Second U Foundation, which equips formerly incarcerated individuals with the skills to become personal trainers in the New York City area.
The program, Ramsey says, helps people integrate back into society. The volunteers, mentors and coaches understand the anxieties and hurdles of re-entering society, he adds.
“It’s a therapeutic-type community,” says Ramsey, who runs his own training business, including a home gym and fitness classes.
He has acted as recruiter and a coach for the Foundation as well as a mentor.
“When you come home from prison, you’re at a great disadvantage,” he says. “A lot of things people outside have, we don’t have — housing, jobs. We’re backed up and just trying to catch up.”
A Second U was founded by Hector Guadalupe, who was just 23 when he began serving 10 years in prison for narcotics distribution. “When I was serving my time, throughout the course of 10 years of prison is where I found this obsession, this love for fitness and for wellness, meditation and yoga,” he says.
Guadalupe lost 90 pounds and became obsessed with taking care of himself, he says.
“For the first time in my life, I actually had to sit with myself and rediscover who I am and my passion and what I loved about myself and my life,” he says, later adding: “Wellness opened the door to me and I gained national certifications and studied on the industry in New York” while incarcerated.
During his time in prison, he says, he trained thousands of men, including staff members, in best fitness practices.
“I use wellness as my tool to communicate with people,” he adds.
Upon release, he was excited to start work but none of the corporate health clubs would hire him because of the prior conviction. “That was a very frustrating time in my life,” he adds. “Tons of closed doors, no opportunities.”
Eventually he was given a shot as a trainer and along the way, he started A Second U Foundation to prevent others from having to go through what he went through. Since its founding in 2015, A Second U Foundation has graduated 200 people, 75% of whom have gone on to work in corporate health clubs and boutique gyms while the rest start their own business. Of those who have taken part in the program, just two have reoffended, he says.
There is one eight-week class per quarter, and each course runs seven days a week. “It’s a very intense program,” Guadalupe says.
The participants learn various skills, including how to close a sale, work with clients and run a business. The program is free for participants — it’s funded by private foundations and grants provided by corporate partnerships — and participants also receive $1,500 in financial support and other resources, he adds.
The program is eight weeks and on the ninth week, they take the certification exam to become a certified personal trainer, Guadalupe says. The program teaches both health-related skills and soft skills, including interacting with clients.
“It’s a lot of support from our end,” he says. “These are things I knew when I came home that were needed.”
The program is based on Guadalupe’s personal experience of hitting walls in his job search after prison.
“This program is based on my travels when I came home from prison and the resources weren’t there for me and the people didn’t believe in giving me the resources,” he adds.
Additionally, the foundation is partnering with sneaker brand VEJA to start a running club in New York City every other Saturday, which started last month.
Guadalupe says the goal is to make sure corporate health clubs open their doors to all individuals, including those who are formerly incarcerated.
“We want corporate health clubs to do right,” he says, later adding: “We need them to open those doors.”
Hector Guadalupe (center, speaking) addressing an A Second U class. (Photo courtesy Hector Guadalupe)
Rickey Burton got involved with the foundation through a friend in 2015. He was already a certified trainer in Newark, New Jersey.
“Even though I was already certified and had clients, I still put myself through the program,” he says. He moved to Brooklyn immediately after starting the program. “Ultimately, it ended up taking my career to a whole new level. It gave me the structure I didn’t have before.”
He learned how to get clients and develop routines and programming for clients, he says. Burton now runs three gyms.
“These are things I was dreaming about for 10 years straight when I was in that cell,” he says. “I look at it as everything I dreamed up while I was on that bunk, all the successes I dreamed up, I still have a long way to go, so there’s no time to rest.”
Burton, 44, continues to mentor and speak to new recruits at A Second U Foundation, which he believes should become an international program.
“We’re saving lives and we’re passionate about what we do,” he says. “Our passion is fueling us every single day.”