At 7:30 on a Saturday morning, about 30 high school students gathered recently in the gym at the John XXIII Educational Center at St. Patrick Church in Racine because they wanted to work out.

Wait. What?

Thirty teenagers? At 7:30 a.m.? Because they wanted to?

Pictured are some of the 35 teens and their family members who participated in the Biggest Loser Challenge organized by the Cristo Rey and St. Patrick parishes youth group in Racine. The group lost 152 pounds during their first effort and another 130 during the second round. A third round will begin in fall. (Submitted photo courtesy Marisol Salazar)“It was really a lot of fun,” said Eddie Garcia, 18, a 2013 graduate of Horlick High School, after finishing a Saturday morning workout at the center. “I didn’t expect it to be so much work, but I enjoyed it a lot.”

The workout was part of a Biggest Loser Challenge for the John XXIII Center and the Cristo Rey/St. Patrick youth group, modeled after the popular NBC television program. The challenge helped the teens get in shape physically and spiritually.

“It’s very fun,” said Priscilla Bueno, a junior at Horlick in the fall. “It helps knowing we are all together. We’re here for a reason.”

How it started

Marisol Salazar, high school coordinator at the John XXIII Center, was concerned about two of the students she tutors.

“They were on the heavy side,” Salazar said. “I was worried about them because they brought a bag of McDonald’s every time they came to do homework.”

So she challenged the students to come into the center during her dinnertime and work out with her.

The two students talked about their workout during their youth group meeting with Eloy Contreras, youth coordinator for Cristo Rey and St. Patrick parishes in Racine. It led to a discussion about the importance of staying healthy.

“That planted the seed…. Let’s do a fitness challenge,” Contreras said. “We were wanting to keep faith formation involved, and we wanted to make people healthier. Since we had the ministry of John XXIII, we decided to do a joint venture. We wanted it to be an outreach program, as well as serve our parish community, so we decided to offer it to anybody who wanted a fitness challenge.”

“I liked the idea of it,” Salazar said. “So we started it here, free of charge, to encourage youth who are not involved with the youth center or youth group with hope of them to get involved. We wanted to give parents something to do with their teens.”

When they scheduled the program for Saturday mornings, Salazar and Contreras worried about attendance. But that never turned out to be an issue.

“We had an overwhelming response of kids,” Contreras said. “It was remarkable.”

In fact, one Saturday morning during the winter they considered canceling the session because of a snowstorm.

“But we couldn’t cancel because when we got there, the kids were all waiting there at the door,” Contreras said.

The Biggest Loser Challenge

The 30 to 35 competitors involved in the challenge were divided up into three teams. Most were teens, but there were some parents and younger siblings in the mix. All learned about healthy eating, fitness, teamwork and self-confidence.

The group met for two hours on Saturday mornings for a workout, weigh-in and healthy snack. Workouts ranged from Insanity and Zumba sessions to basketball and boxing.

Participants also worked out three days a week on their own. But the challenge was a group effort.

In the process, they lost 152 pounds total over the first six-week session held this winter and 130 pounds during the second round, which ended in May.

“It was very challenging,” said Edwin Vazquez, 16, a Horlick junior. “But anybody can do it. You just have to believe in yourself. We are not going to McDonald’s every day now. Instead, we are eating healthy things like strawberries and bananas. It really helped to change us, to change our lifestyle.”

Parishioners from St. Patrick and Cristo Rey have been supportive of the program. So has the general community.

Real Racine, a visitor’s bureau, donated athletic equipment and prizes. Athletes volunteered to teach Zumba and to work with the kids one-on-one.

For many of the participants, it would have been impossible to participate in a program like this at a fitness center because it would have been too expensive, Contreras said.

“The support from the community has been overwhelming,” Contreras said. “The presence of Christ is evident.”

Temples of the Holy Spirit

A main driving force behind the program is Fr. Anthony Primal Thomas, administrator at Cristo Rey and St. Patrick parishes. He believes staying in shape is something everyone should do as keepers of the temples of the Holy Spirit.

Contreras went to Fr. Thomas to get approval to run the Biggest Loser Challenge, especially because the challenge was about health and fitness, not the Bible or catechesis.

“In order to have a strong spiritual belief you need to have a strong body, both inner and outer,” Fr. Thomas told him. “How you see yourself is how you visualize God. If you take care of yourself, you take care of Jesus.”

Fr. Thomas also saw the importance of reaching out to the youth.

“At these particular two parishes, there has been no money,” Contreras said. “But Fr. Thomas has said that if the only thing we have is a building, and no outreach, then we are not doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Serving others part of project

After each of the workouts, most of the youth stayed in the gym. Some would shoot hoops. Others talked in groups.

But when Contreras told them it was time to go, they came together and cleaned the center. They put away the sports equipment, turned off lights and locked doors. They sorted bulletins for the parish. They did whatever they could to help out.

“Service is always very important here,” Contreras said. “Jesus told us to live the Gospel. That’s what they are doing: service.”

The Biggest Loser Challenge helped them to serve one another.

“Everyone during the workout motivates each other,” said Marisol Martinez, a 16-year-old senior at Racine’s Walden High School. “With a friend by you, you keep going. If you are by yourself, you give up.”

“We work together to get to our goal,” agreed Alejandra Gutierrez, 16, a junior at Walden. “It’s really fun. At each workout we got a stronger bond.”

Many of the youth in the Biggest Loser Challenge are student athletes who compete in wrestling, football, track, soccer or volleyball. They encouraged the others.

“Come on, you got this!” the youth would call out to each other during the workouts.

“It practices humility,” Contreras said. “They all really inspire each other. It went beyond encouragement. There is a security level being among friends, being encouraged by them. We are supposed to inspire the kids, but they inspire me. It is them that encourage me.”

More to come

Plans are underway to start a third round of the Biggest Loser in the fall. The competitors plan to participate again.

Many of the youth started coming to the church in order to perform community service. Some were court-ordered; others came on their own.

“This is their escape,” Contreras said. “Parents are comfortable knowing they’re here. This is an inner-city community, and many of the kids don’t feel comfortable in the public or the park systems.”

Many of the teens come to the center after school for tutoring. They come on Friday nights for youth group. They come for open gym. They just come.

“Those kids over there,” Contreras said, pointing at a small group of teens. “They came because their mom made them come and help us put up Christmas trees at Christmastime.”

“Now, I can’t get rid of them,” he joked.