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When the Pandemic Hit, Gym Members Came to the Rescue

After coronavirus swept the United States, gym members across the country stepped up by buying punch passes or maintaining their memberships despite closures. This community, however, went the extra mile to support laid-off gym employees.

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On a sunny 70-degree April afternoon in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Josh Faggart walked out to check the mail. Faggart had been unemployed for roughly a month since coronavirus swept the nation, leaving millions jobless. Faggart was one of eight staff members at Cliff Hangers climbing gym who was swiftly furloughed. At 24 years old, he was quarantining at his parents’ home.

Neatly tucked within his mailbox was a bright red party bag. He lifted it out carefully to avoid spilling the contents. Inside were several handfuls of candy, two decks of playing cards, a hand-sewn mask, several gift cards for groceries, a note and—bonus—a roll of toilet paper.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time because my unemployment [check] was held in limbo for about six weeks,” he said. “This [gift bag] was amazing to have to live off.”

After coronavirus hit the United States in March, gym members across the country stepped up by buying punch passes or maintaining their memberships despite closures. This community, however, went the extra mile to support laid-off gym employees. While helped by others, one person—though she would not tell you so—led the charge.

Pre-pandemic, Dana White and her daughter Norah enjoy a few laps at Cliff Hangers. Photo by Alicia Green

Dana White’s history at Cliff Hangers, in Mooresville, began three years ago when she brought her 7-year-old daughter to the climbing gym. White’s daughter was instantly hooked, and as White started frequenting the gym, she began to think it was something she could do, too.

Shortly thereafter, White, having served in the Army for 12 years, participated in a Wounded Warriors event at the gym. The event was free for veterans and taught participants how to climb.

Quickly, she was all in, and she would pen this review of the gym on Google: “Everyone was nice, staff and patrons alike. Being less-than-fit, I sometimes feel self-conscious when I try to exercise in public; but that didn’t happen here. I had fun and I certainly got a workout. Also, music selection was on point. Will return soon.”

White became a regular and remained one even when her daughter eventually moved on to the next sport. Everything about climbing fit her needs: she was exercising (though she said she’s never been athletic in her life), the staff members went out of their way to be helpful, and there were moms just like her who could swap belays.

She spoke fondly of Faggart, whom she said, like her, was heavy-set. “He introduced himself and said, ‘Yeah, I was like over 300 pounds when I figured out how to climb,’” said White. “And he showed me how to use my legs and made the sport more accessible to me.” Faggart lost 60 pounds within a year after discovering the sport.

White not only continued to seek out Faggart’s climbing tips, she introduced friends to the gym and formed a group called “Couch to 5.10.” Group members had just started lead climbing when coronavirus shut the gym down, and shut down jobs as well.

“The worst part about all of this for me was the unknown,” said Hannah Barker, who’s been routesetting at Cliff Hangers for two years. “Will I ever have a job again, how will I pay rent, do I need a new job, how will I take care of my dogs, is this the end of the gym?”

Another staff member, Skye Snider, said that the closure has affected her mental health. “I am someone who has struggled a lot with mental health and I have a history of disordered eating.” Now, she said, she has felt her strength deteriorate and negativity creep back into her mind.

White, as she later put it, saw what was coming for the gym’s employees and jumped into “Moms gotta mom” mode. She began reaching out to various gym staffers, checking in on them and making sure they were going to be able to make ends meet, both mentally and financially.

A mother of two who works full-time as a digital product manager for Lowe’s Home Improvement, White was interrupted throughout a recent interview. “I’m learning to work in between their needs,” she said of her children. She’s not exactly a woman with a lot of free time on her hands, but she couldn’t stand the thought of her Cliff Hangers family falling apart.

When it first became apparent that all Cliff Hangers staff would be laid off, White once again took to the online world, this time on Facebook. Hoping to put together some Secret-Santa-type matchups, she made a survey asking the staffers what they needed or wanted, what type of restaurants they frequented, and where they shopped for groceries, adding several open-ended questions like, “What’s the biggest stress you are dealing with?”

“We sent out eight surveys to various staff members and got seven responses back, and they ran the gamut,” said White. “Some people were just kind of bored, and some kids were looking for jobs and they just wanted to work. Some people needed really practical things, like their car fixed or bills paid.”

White had originally hoped that the gift giving could come as a surprise to the recipients. But the responses made clear that some staffers needed support immediately. She and other members, including Bob Driver, Christopher Bongiorno, Cathy Sharpe and Patrick Ahern, began dividing up rent costs, buying groceries, cooking food, or doing whatever else they could in support.

For Mark Rogers, who worked as Cliff Hangers’ assistant general manager for the past two years, the support was more than practicalities. “A week and a half into the quarantine, my grandfather contracted Covid-19, and my family has been aiding him where we could,” said Rogers. “Two days ago, doctors informed us that he would not be able to fight this any longer, and they’ve begun to make his passing a painless one. Our members have been such a rock for myself as well as the rest of the Cliff Hangers staff in a time when we’ve felt helpless. … I have never felt a truer sense of community.”

Jobs arose as well for staffers. Since the gym closed, Barker has been babysitting White’s two kids. “This immediately relieved some of the financial stress on my end,” said Barker, who also received cash, a gift bag and heartworm medication for her dog. Another family hired her for a consultation on their home woody.

Among the other members who joined forces with White to support staffers was Driver, a 50-year-old physician with two kids who took up the sport about three years ago. “Since then we have become gym regulars,” said Driver. “There is the family you are born with and there is the family you choose. This is the family I chose, and chose me.” Driver donated a total of $370 to various staff members and raised $100 more.

White says: “The reason why we’re doing it and the reason why people are so excited to give and continue to do so is because when the gym opens again, we want it to be the same gym. We want the same staff members to be there. The thought of not going back to that place is so devastating.” She laughed. “When I go back to the gym, I need Josh to still be there so he can give me tips. The staffers just aren’t replaceable.”