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By involving your clients in team-focused charitable initiatives you can strengthen your fitness community and boost retention.

Reading classes prior to the library

As PTs, when we talk about our fitness community, what do we really mean? Are we talking about a database of clients and colleagues, or is it something more – a real network of strong relationships and shared experiences?

Since its inception in 1997 I have sought to proactively foster a strong sense of community in my personal and group training business, Jump Start, both among clients and our team of trainers. I believe it is this sense of being something more than just a training session that has seen our retention rates average 96 per cent in recent years. Our clients stay with us three and a half times longer than the industry average, and our trainers stay four times longer.

In part this can be attributed to the mentoring our trainers receive, and the supportive and highly personalised service we deliver. Another large part of Jump Start’s success, however, can be put down to the community-focused fundraising work that has become integral to the business’s identity. The beauty is that the work we do strengthens our fitness community while also benefiting other communities thousands of kilometres away in Vanuatu. Allow me to elaborate.

Library opening day

In 1990 I worked in a secondary school in Vila, Vanuatu, and while falling in love with the place and the people, I was continually frustrated by the lack of learning resources available to the local children. In 2001 I returned to Vanuatu with some Jump Start clients to participate in the Round Island Relay – an Independence Day event that symbolically links all the villages around the main island of Efate.

Since then, more than 154 Sydney-siders have run, walked and trotted more than 2,419km to raise money to provide over 1,500 kilos of literacy resources, stationary, and pre-loved reading books for the children and teachers of two remote rural primary and secondary schools. We have also provided education and travel sponsorships to 44 students and 8 teachers.

In order for this work to continue, and to allow it to grow, in 2010 a group of committed colleagues and I formed Jump Start Foundation. The latest achievement of the foundation has been its most ambitious yet.

Heidi digs the first hole for the library with her enthusiastic helpers

Running for literacy

A few months ago a group of more than 43 clients and trainers – myself among them – completed a 150km relay in Vanuatu to raise the final dollars and celebrate the official opening of a community library that we had funded at Isangel Central Primary School (ICPS) on the island of Tanna in Southern Vanuatu.

Over 300 titles stock the library, the first time new books have ever been available in this community. The library was built with more than 700 volunteer hours of work performed by more than 200 supporters, over a 39-month period. Mamas and papas collected coral from the beach for the concrete slab, the children stood in a line on a hot day passing a bucket of water from the one tap in the school to the concrete mixer, the teachers filled sandbags of dirt to use as a filler, the local men were able to build the library for the practical component of their building certification, and mamas made beautiful curtains and floral arrangements upon completion. The entire community got behind this project, which has resulted in a strong sense of pride and respect for it.

While 93 per cent of school-age children in Vanuatu enrol in primary school, less than 15 per cent complete six years of schooling, and less than 1.5 per cent complete twelve years of schooling.

Literacy is the key to successful participation in today’s society. When you are unable to read, there is a domino effect in all areas of your life because you can’t read a medicine bottle, an employment advertisement, a ballot form, a directional sign, or have the simple pleasure of reading a story. Over the last 13 years Jump Start has given over 800 children hope, skills and the opportunity to change their lives.

My proudest day – officially opening the library

Creating a win-win culture

The community culture we have created at Jump Start is at the very heart of our business success, and events like the fundraising efforts in Vanuatu, where both clients and trainers participate, are essential to engendering that strong sense of culture.

We often refer to the ‘Jump Start Family’ and that is a big part of how both our clients and our trainers feel about being part of the organisation.

For our clients and trainers, participating in an event like the library fundraising in Vanuatu helps crystallise this sense. It perfectly links their desire to get fitter – a real physical challenge in a beautiful location – with their desire to be part of a team of people fulfilling a higher purpose.

But the Vanuatu projects are not just for those who travel with us to the Relay Event and do Jump Start Foundation volunteer work. In the lead up to these trips, all the clients and trainers get involved with the fundraising, the donations of books, the selling of raffle tickets, the purchase of auction items, the packing of literacy bags, volunteering their time at events to raise money, and fully immersing themselves in the goodwill involved in what we do. These clients still feel a real connection to the children we support, and gain a true satisfaction that they are part of an organisation that is making a real difference.

Of course, you don’t need to create overseas-based events to inspire your community of clients: choosing a local cause that strongly resonates with you and those you work with, whether it be a community group for disadvantaged young people, or a local hospital, can serve the same dual purpose of achieving good while also building a true fitness community.

Heidi Dening, BEd (PE) has owned and directed Jump Start since 1997. From working out of her garage by herself to a studio with 10 staff, Jump Starts’ client retention rates triple industry standards, and trainer retention rates quadruple it. This has earned Heidi the acknowledgement of being Australia’s most successful businesswomen in the personal training industry.

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