October 17, 2019

Lift For Life provides athletic outlet for at-risk youth

A local nonprofit is producing Olympic prospects in weightlifting.

LIFT FOR LIFE GYM/Contributed Photo Lift For Life Gym’s Jerome Smith strives for an Olympic debut in 2024.

Lift For Life Gym (LFLG) says its mission is to, “offer at-risk St. Louis city children a safe, enriching environment in which to strengthen their bodies, enrich their minds, develop healthy social relationships, and learn to make positive life choices.”

A study from WalletHub ranked St. Louis as the least safe city in the nation last year. The weightlifting gym at 1415 Cass Ave. is attempting to combat the city’s violence, crime and drug use one person at a time.

Championship Success
The gym, a nonprofit organization, is home to a competitive national championship-winning weightlifting team. Five athletes took home a combined 15 medals following the 2019 USA Weightlifting Youth National Championships in Anaheim, California in late June. Competitions follow the Olympic style youth weightlifting program. Executive director Joe Miller said the organization has produced 52 youth national champions since 1999.

Junior coach Jerome Smith took 10th place at the Junior World Championships in Fiji in early June. He also took fourth place at the 2018 Youth Olympics. Other team members said without the program, they would be dead or in jail, something Smith agreed with.

“Lift For Life was my way out,” Smith said. “There was a lot going on around my neighborhood and they brought me in and kept me away from the streets. It’s just awesome to get away from St. Louis itself. I would have never thought that I would go to Fiji or Argentina or Colombia, but Lift For Life made that happen.”

Lift For Life has not remained untouched by drugs, gangs or violence according to founder Marshall Cohen. Smith plans to stay in the gym, eventually medaling for the U.S. Olympic team under his coach Jimmy Duke. Smith is also a junior coach and hopes to give back to Lift For Life.

“For me, Jimmy’s the best because growing up, I didn’t have a father figure and as soon as Jimmy came around, he acted as [if] he was like my father,” Smith said. “He told me one thing he wants me to do what he did for me for someone else.”

Early Days
Founded in 1988 by Cohen, LFLG once occupied the basement of Globe Drugs, the family drugstore where Cohen once worked. He took up weight lifting after being bullied, in part, due to his size. Cohen was a self-described “98-pound weakling.”

“When I got older, I noticed a lot of these kids that were growing up in the projects didn’t have anything to do and there was a lot of gun violence like there is today,” Cohen said. “It was really difficult for them to get into organized activities. I just thought they could come down and work out, feel good about themselves and healthy, and sure enough, it worked.”

The gym utilized “old school” equipment and free weights but quickly developed a following. Cohen said the gym started with just two lifters but the total gradually became hundreds a year.

Beyond The Gym
Over 30 years since its founding, Lift For Life’s mission has expanded to more than building muscle. Lift For Life is now an after school program offering resources from computer use and homework help to career preparation and several week-long summer camps. Executive director Joe Miller said the gym serves 13,000 free meals annually.

“With our program, we never charge a dime, not for any transportation, any trips, any fees, any membership dues, we never charge a dime,’ Miller said. “Kids in the inner city lack of resources and support. So to find it here in a safe place, in an afterschool setting, dedicated to lifting these kids up and keeping them on track, that’s pretty rare.”

In 2000, Cohen created a separate nonprofit, Lift For Life Academy (LFLA). The school, the first independent charter school in St. Louis, started in the gym with a class of 65 middle school students. Cohen said the nonprofits shared space for a year and a half before the academy moved into its own space.

LFLA now offers a full curriculum from elementary through high school levels.

Former Gorlok Kate Leenerts earned her master’s degree in reading from Webster in 2016. She hopes to return to Webster in January as part of the Educational Specialist (EdS) program.

Leenerts teaches seventh grade English language arts (ELA) at the academy. She works with students significantly below their grade level in reading.

“We really talk about student-athletes and preparing the student, but they’re getting so much also out of the athletic programs,” Leenerts said. “It will be really cool to see some of them go on to the next level.”

As of 2019, the academy has a student body ranging from elementary to high school students. Cohen said LFLA’s graduation rate as of this year is roughly 92 percent. According to a June 2019 Facebook post, Lift For Life Gym has taken home over 80 medals over the last six years.

“The goal is to sustain the success of just being the most consistent thing in these kids’ lives, and that’s not a joke,” Miller said of the gym. “As long as we’re consistently here for these kids, that’s what matters the most. I have no doubt that many people will help us continue this legacy of lifting kids up.”

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