Chef Sandy Mitchell makes a kale smoothie during a healthy food demonstration at Englewood's Primo Center. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

ENGLEWOOD — It’s a quiet, sunny summer day in Englewood, and East Bank Club trainer Jean Jourdain is enthusiastically leading a group of Primo Center employees through a series of exercises in the gymnasium.

The group lunges and stretches in unison to hip hop tracks, effortlessly switching from one move to the next for the next 15 minutes. After, they’ll join Englewood Community Kitchen’s Sandy Mitchell for a crash course in smoothie-making.

The Primo Center, a social service organization dedicated to helping families transition out of homelessness, is the latest organization to hop on the health and wellness train. While not a new trend — most companies have offered health and wellness programs for decades — COVID-19 has forced organizations like the Primo Center to take a closer look at the wellbeing of their employees, who are dealing with the day-to-day stresses of the job in the midst of a global pandemic.

East Bank Club Master Trainer Jean Jourdain (far left) leads a group of Primo Center employees in an exercise class as part of the organization’s health and wellness program. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

“We’re in the business of taking care of people at the most vulnerable point in their lives, and it’s a 365-day process. Healthcare for our staff is just as important as the care we provide for our families,” said Shelley Cooper, Primo’s chief community relations officer. “With the pandemic, and bringing to light the health disparities in the communities we serve, we’ve always been cognizant of the lack of access to health. We wanted to make sure our staff would be able to take care of our families in the best way possible.”

To that end, employees working at the Primo’s Englewood location, 6212 S. Sangamon St., now have access to an on-site workout room that they can use anytime they wish. They’ll also have the opportunity to receive fitness training from Jourdain once a week. Both will adhere to social distancing guidelines, workers exercising in shifts, in masks, six feet apart.

Most of the staff who live in the vicinity of the center face many of the same health challenges as the families they help; time and access to gyms and grocery stores are still a luxury in certain parts of Englewood. Bringing healthier options on site not only ensures that employees get what they need to get through the day, but fosters a sense of camaraderie and trust.

It’s also good for morale, said LaShunda Brown, Primo’s Chief Officer of Quality and Impact.

“I always want to work out, but when you work full-time and have a life, it’s hard. I paid a whole year’s membership at Charter Fitness and only went once,” said Brown. “I come here, I have meetings, calls … at the end of the day I’m exhausted and ready to go home.”

Since the opening of the fitness center, it’s been easier for Brown to hit the elliptical on her lunch break, or in between meetings. She keeps an extra set of clothes in her office to keep herself motivated.

“At first I was a little skeptical of it. I didn’t think anyone would use it. But now we’re fighting over who gets to go in first,” laughed Brown. “Working with families experiencing trauma, sometimes you can absorb that, and take it on. You’re hearing stories about violence and sexual assault, and it gives you a form of anxiety. So being able to go somewhere to just walk it out really helps.”

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