Originally published July 24, 2017 in YourHub, a Denver Post publication.
By Megan Mitchell
Photos by Kathryn Scott, YourHub
Every Tuesday and Thursday right after lunch, a couple dozen kids who live near Twin Lakes in south Adams County trickle through the front doors of the Pearl Mack Community Center and head to a large meeting room to help Alex Aleman set up for class.
Chatter and teen banter fills the room. But as soon as Aleman, 18, begins a lesson, all talk stops, and the youths crowd around him, listening intently as he describes the activities planned for the next hour.
“The kids are drawn to him. He has something very unique,” said Courtney Sibayan, Pearl Mack’s recreation supervisor. “Parents come in every summer and ask me when Alex’s classes are going to be because they plan that into their kids’ summer activities and schedules.”
Four years ago, Aleman came to Sibayan with a plan — he wanted to run a free, after-school fitness class for local kids called Healthy Kids in Action. He pledged to do all the marketing and outreach to get it going.
“I created Healthy Kids in Action when I was 14 because I grew up here, in a low-income area where we don’t really have affordable recreation programs available to everyone,” Aleman said. “It was inspired by my leadership program at the Family Leadership Training Institute (in Fort Collins).”
The institute is a family civics program where participants develop skills to become effective leaders in their communities. More than five years ago, Aleman spent 20 weeks developing and researching how to structure Healthy Kids in Action.
For two hours each week, Aleman’s students run math relays, play dodge ball and complete structured workouts. Now in its fourth year, Healthy Kids in Action is one of the most popular and well-attended activities offered at the community center at 7125 Mariposa St. — and that isn’t because the class is free.
“Alex grew up in the Pearl Mack community and has a great relationship with everyone,” Sibayan said. “His class is probably one of our most well-attended. Last year, we had to split the class to younger kids on Tuesday and older ones on Thursday, and we actually had to turn kids away this year, as much as I hate to say it.”
“My daughter loves it, and I really like the way that Alex works with the kids,” said Ronna Waller, who lives nearby with daughter Autumn, 9. “He makes fitness fun, and it just seems like she’s really running around and working hard. We do this every year.”
Other parents echo Waller’s comments.
“I just like the way that he works with my daughter,” said Diana Villar, who has lived in the community for six years. “We’ve been here for every single class this summer because she just loves being here and (loves) Alex.”
Aleman’s family moved to the neighborhood in 2008. He went to Pearl Mack’s after-school recreation club and noticed that it was one of few free programs in the area. The Pearl Mack Community Center is run by the Hyland Hills Parks and Recreation District in Federal Heights.
“Affording things like awesome summer programs has always been an issue for a lot of kids in this neighborhood, and it’s not their fault,” Aleman said. “But I felt like it would be fair if we all had fun, healthy, safe things to do, no matter how much money we have.”
Hyland Hills serves Adams County School District 50, which includes about 20 schools serving about 10,000 students. Nearly 80 percent of those students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“He’s done a great job reaching out to these kids in a really meaningful way,” Sibayan said. “We’ve given him support when he needs it, but this is his baby. He puts the fliers together and goes and hands them out to the schools … he goes to (Francis M. Day Elementary School) and talks to kids and families there. He’s been in their shoes, and he knows that they need to have a place that they can go and have a good time that isn’t going to cost anything.”
At first, Aleman played music saved on his phone and ran a standard routine of exercises. Over time, based partially on feedback from his peers, he transformed the class into a workout that is more active, dynamic and fun.
“It’s changed quite a lot,” he said. “It started off once a week as a supplement to the recreation club students. All the kids would come after school and do some exercising. Now, it’s twice a week for eight weeks every summer. It’s my own program. My teaching style also changed, or, it started to evolve.”
Although the class was popular, there was no money for programming.
Then last year, Aleman started an online fundraising campaign from the Boulder-based nonprofit Philanthropy Project to gather enough cash to buy basic gear — hurdles, dodge balls, agility ladders, dry erase boards.
“I raised $600 total,” he said. “It was a great step toward developing Healthy Kids in Action even further. I was so proud.”
Aleman has not accepted any payment or stipend for teaching at Pearl Mack, despite Sibayan’s efforts.
“This is a community service. It should be free,” he said. “I’m happy with what I have.”
Aleman graduated Westminster High School in spring, finishing third overall academically. He ran cross country and was his team’s most valuable player three years in row. He also participated in youth mentoring programs. He plans to attend the University of Denver in fall and may study engineering or community relations.
And he’ll keep running Healthy Kids in Action, which he hopes to expand through donations of money or unused workout equipment. “I will take any equipment that people can spare to help grow this program,” he said. “I’m going to have my summers off, so I plan to keep this going as long as I can.”