When the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools began to close in March, Lionhearts Fitness in Ringgold — usually a spot that primarily gives kids and young adults a free place to learn to face life's challenges through obstacle course training — found itself offering a respite to parents who needed help by providing a space for students to do their schoolwork during the day.
While it wasn't how the gym's owner, Michele "Shell" Luccketta, imagined her nonprofit would service the community, she couldn't ignore the growing need.
"You know, you're not getting any good news. You're getting a lot of bad news and a lot of the youth are being surrounded by that bad news. And there's nowhere for them to go," she said.
"So, that is what keeps me doing 12 hours a day volunteer work here. We have to. I would not have done this [normally]. This is not in my wheelhouse, but I can't see any option. I just have to."
As students begin to head back to class in a variety of capacities, Luccketta said Lionhearts, funded by donations, is again offering students in need a free, safe space to spend the day, get schoolwork done and interact with others.
Luccketta said she and her volunteers work each day to give students a combination of exercise, arts and crafts, and support doing schoolwork while making sure that students are washing their hands and have space to spread out.
Precautions including encouraging face masks, taking temperatures and consistently cleaning and sanitizing the 7,000-square-foot facility are also in place.
Lionhearts also was able to host various summer camps during the months when school was out of session after the state's restrictions on gyms were lifted, and did so successfully, Luccketta said.
During the academic year, students are able to participate in the center's free exercise program in exchange for doing community service. With much of the typical outreach limited due to the pandemic, students are instead being asked to create art to be distributed to others in the local area.
At the end of the day, Luccketta just hopes to provide support during a stressful time for as many households as possible.
"I can't help but think of what these children are going through in their families," she said. "I'm fine; I have my life and my kids are grown and [healthy]. It isn't how I've been affected, it's how my community's been affected."
Contact Tierra Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.