Gift of Fitness – The Story of Our First Year
How it Began
Virginia Svoboda had worked in the fitness industry for years and owned a local women’s fitness center. During the economic downturn, she’d noticed that low-income women, who might have the greatest need for physical fitness and nutrition counseling opportunities, also had the least access to them. She wondered if it might be possible to start a nonprofit to address this need.
In August, 2012, Virginia shared her concern with a friend, Gina Merritt, who had a background in the nonprofit sector. The first thing they did was to explore whether the people and needs Virginia had encountered were representative of the community.
They discovered that the need was greater than they had expected. Northwestern Lake County and northeastern McHenry County had been hard hit by the recession and slow in bouncing back. An area of poverty had developed along the Route 12 corridor. This surprised them, because their community didn’t look low-income — since the economic change was relatively recent, financial need was invisible to the casual observer. But Fox Lake, for instance, now had a poverty rate of 11.3%.
Virginia and Gina met with directors of food pantries, community centers and government entities. Everyone they talked with confirmed that there were unmet needs in the area — social services had not kept pace with demographic changes in this part of the county.
The literature revealed strong correlations between low income, obesity, employment discrimination, and health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. These factors, in turn, were linked to higher stress and poor self-image. The end result was often the creation of a vicious cycle.
What Gift of Fitness Does and Why
After conducting this needs assessment, Virginia and Gina moved ahead with a few friends to form the board of directors for a new nonprofit. We envisioned Gift of Fitness as a women’s health initiative with the mission of providing physical fitness and nutrition education programming for low-income women, particularly those in greatest need. The program would provide:
- Free, unlimited access to a secure, 24/7 women’s fitness center
- Free exercise classes
- Free nutrition education classes and nutrition counseling
- Free health screenings
- Encouragement and a welcoming place of community for local women
Our long-term vision is of a community in which all women, regardless of income, can reap the benefits of physical fitness and good health.
Our plan is to create a program that is simple, sustainable, cost-effective and replicable. The broader goal is to benefit not just the women served, but their families and the wider community in terms of lower healthcare costs, increased knowledge of good nutrition and improved quality of life. Gift of Fitness is the only program of its kind serving women in northwestern Lake County and northeastern McHenry County, Illinois.
In December 2012, we contacted The Law Project, which is part of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. The Law Project provides viable start-up nonprofits with pro bono legal representation through major Chicago law firms. In January 2013, Gift of Fitness was accepted by the program.
Attorneys Laura Stake and Jamie Grischkan of Paul Hastings LLP assisted us, and Gift of Fitness was incorporated as an Illinois nonprofit on March 15, 2013. They also handled our application for 501(c)3 tax exempt status, which was filed on June 10.
Meanwhile, Gift of Fitness entered into an agreement with the McHenry County Community Foundation. MCCF acted as our fiscal agent while we waited to receive tax exempt status from the IRS. Because of this sponsorship, any donations made to Gift of Fitness were tax deductible.
During the spring of 2013, Gift of Fitness board members met with representatives of the Cooperative Extension Office in Grayslake. We discussed partnering with their organization to provide low-income women with nutrition education. We plan to begin these classes in the fall of 2013. Any low-income women are welcome to attend these classes, whether they are participants in the full Gift of Fitness program or not.
Also during the spring, we contacted the College of Lake County’s internship office in order to obtain web design and development help, as well as graphic arts assistance. Our intern, Sherry Sink, did an amazing job and produced what will be key elements in our outreach efforts to the community. We also met with Cynthia Zimmerman of United Way of Lake County, who gave us valuable guidance in planning a kick-off open house to introduce Gift of Fitness to the community.
On July 14, 2014 we received notice that the IRS had granted us our 501 (c) 3 Status. Gift of Fitness was now recognized as a Public Charity under the code 170 (b) (1) (A) (vi).
What We’ve Accomplished So Far
In November of 2012, Grant Township Supervisor Kay Starostovic agreed to distribute a batch of our flyers in their food pantry’s holiday food baskets. As a result of this, we were able to begin a pilot program with 10 women in January 2013.
There were two reasons for having a pilot program. First, even though we did not yet have funding, we wanted to start helping women right away. Second, we wanted to be able to develop our systems and work out the “bugs” before the program was fully operational. Our plan is to gradually ramp up the size of the program as funding becomes available.
Of the ten women initially accepted into the program, eight are using the fitness center regularly. As mentioned above, we plan to start the nutrition education program in September 2013.
Despite the small size of the Gift of Fitness pilot program, we are thankful and humbled by the results we’ve seen. One of our participants, Keli, began having labored breathing while she worked out. Virginia advised her that she needed to see her doctor before working out any more. Keli did, and as a result soon afterward received stents to prevent a heart attack. She credits Gift of Fitness with saving her life.
Looking into the Future
In the future, we hope to move Gift of Fitness from a small pilot program to 60 participants; full program capacity at our Fox Lake location will be about 100. The program will grow as funds are available.
Measurable outcomes are important to us — we want to not just be able to demonstrate results, but to adjust the program to improve them. For this reason, clients have minimum participation requirements. Attendance is automatically recorded through a key card system. Participants will have weight, measurements and BMI checked monthly.
As part of the program, Gift of Fitness plans to provide free health screenings. Screenings, self reports, periodic surveys and any feedback clients may share from their doctors will all help to demonstrate program results.
We are seeking to collaborate with local healthcare professionals in order to provide these free blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and chiropractic screenings. We are also continuing to seek partnerships with other local social service agencies, government entities and businesses as well.
The Gift of Fitness program is designed to be replicable. Once the program reaches full capacity at the Fox Lake facility, our plan is to conduct needs assessments in nearby communities and launch Gift of Fitness in new locations. Our goal is to follow the same cost-effective pattern — partnering with an existing fitness center, local nutrition educators and local health professionals.
As mentioned above, the Gift of Fitness program operates out of an existing health club facility. This has meant much lower start-up costs, with no major equipment purchases and no security deposit needed. Our goal is to keep Gift of Fitness a financially lean, no frills operation.
During the months we have been organizing Gift of Fitness, all start-up expenses have been met by board members, either through donations or through loans. All work to date has been performed on a volunteer basis. We were able to start the pilot program right away, before receiving any donations, because use of the health club facility has been free of charge. (This in-kind donation will continue until funds are available; eventually, Gift of Fitness will pay for facility usage in proportion to its number of clients.)
Total start-up expenses have included the following, totaling approximately $3,000:
- Promotional Budget (brochures, flyers, web) $500
- Kick-off Event (invitations, refreshments, rentals) $350
- Organizational (incorporation, licenses, IRS application, insurance, supplies, etc.) $2150
We estimate a budget of approximately $45,000 for our first year of operations.
We believe that diversified revenue streams create the most reliable, sustainable path to financial stability for a nonprofit. For that reason, Gift of Fitness will pursue all realistic sources of funding. These include individual donors, events, local business donors, corporate and foundation grants and government grants.
Our funds are kept in a checking account at BMO Harris Bank. Our initial Tax Return was filed using form 990-EZ and is available to public viewing by calling us. Our financial records are maintained electronically using Microsoft Excel, although we plan to use QuickBooks for Nonprofits when funds are available to purchase it.
Gift of Fitness
36166 Mary Court, Ingleside, IL 60041
145 Sayton Road
Fox Lake, IL 60020
Board members serve a three-year term.
The board normally meets on the third Monday of the month, although this is subject to change. Meetings are currently held at Venus Fitness, 145 Sayton Road in Fox Lake, IL. The public is welcome to attend.