Life-coaching on skid row starts with scrapping the textbook

Battle-scarred cynics in a shelter are a far cry from the trainers' usual clientele. But by listening to the women's stories, a space was created where trust could grow.

Los Angeles Mission

Residents of the Los Angeles Mission work out during a session with volunteer trainers as part of a nonprofit project called Urban Fitness 911. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / March 13, 2014)

Wendy Newton's first impulse was to just say no: She wasn't going to volunteer her life-coaching services to women on skid row.

She has two young children and a "person-centered branding" business with demanding clients. She didn't want to waste hours in rush hour traffic, crawling from Beverly Hills to downtown Los Angeles every week.

But then she remembered how good it felt when she worked with inner-city teens years before. So she agreed to try skid row.

"I thought, 'These are grown women. How hard could it be?'"

She found out how hard a few weeks later, when she showed up at the Los Angeles Mission with two other volunteers.


FOR THE RECORD:
Life-coaching on skid row: A column in the April 5 Section A about a life-coaching program for women on skid row misspelled professional life coach Wendy Newman’s last name as Newton.

The professional coaches were accustomed to grateful clients willing to spend thousands for help navigating midlife crises, repairing relationships, building careers.

At the Mission, their sessions drew battle-scarred cynics with criminal records, drug addictions and no regard for the volunteers' noblesse oblige.

"Some crossed their arms and glared at us from the couch," Newton recalled. "Others would just get up while we were talking and walk out."

But the trio of coaches kept showing up — and the cynics came back.

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The life-coaching sessions are part of a nonprofit project called Urban Fitness 911. Founder Veronica Everett-Boyce began by offering fitness classes last winter in the skid row shelter's gym.

Her own personal trainer, Nina Moore, recruited two dozen volunteers from the training staff at the tony Equinox fitness club in West Los Angeles. "I asked that they come for a session," she said. "Now some come every week. It was eye-opening for us."

The trainers were used to helping high rollers chisel six-pack abs, not working out middle-aged women so depleted by years on the street that they got winded unpacking the exercise gear. They didn't expect to have to deal with squabbles, no-shows and standoffs in the gym.

But those problems seemed to ease when the life-coaching sessions began.

"There was so much conflict and tension," said life-coach team leader Nina Boski, a "lifestyle expert" who runs a coaching operation she calls LifeBites. "Imagine, you're fresh off the street, after 20 years of crack cocaine. It's not going to be 'Let me tell you how to change your life in three steps or less.'

"They didn't trust us, they didn't trust each other, they didn't trust themselves," Boski said.

The coaches scrapped the textbook approach and relied on the women to guide them. "We asked and we listened and we learned what they needed," said Marigrace Gleason, a therapist whose specialty is women's empowerment circles.

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