The Robinson Theatre Community Arts Center in Church Hill rocked Saturday night as 30 individuals who have spent the past six months encouraging people all around Richmond and the Tri-Cities areas to move were celebrated for their blood, sweat, tears — and maybe most importantly, their hearts.

Fitness Warriors trains people to be fitness instructors, who then move out into underserved communities to teach free exercise classes. Now in its third year, the warriors teach all over the area, from Charles City County and Hopewell to Henrico County. They teach classes in public schools, libraries, churches, apartment complexes, local community centers and more, and classes are open to everyone.

The program is a partnership among Sports Backers, the Richmond City Health District, Fit-To-Go and the American Council on Exercise and is funded, in part, by the Windsor Foundation Trust. Saturday night’s fete was a graduation for the most recent class of warriors, who started training last July and began teaching classes in September. They are required to teach at least one class each week and, since September, they have taught more than 800 people at 32 locations around the area.

Their mission may be attacking social health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, said Jacki Quinlan, Sports Backers director of community outreach. But something else happens when these warriors begin to work in their communities.

“They become role models ... (and) this is how you get a culture change,” said Quinlan, adding that anyone 18 and up can apply to be a warrior, but only the most committed are chosen.

Because the warriors typically work in low-income communities, “we need the best of the best for that,” Quinlan continued. “We’re looking for people who are really passionate and really ready to commit, because it’s more about that than the fitness side for us.”

“We can teach someone how to lead a fitness class, but the other side,” she said, referring to the human element, “you can’t teach that.”

Lakeshia Allen is a warrior who not only graduated Saturday night but also was recognized with the program’s first Raymond D. Patterson Award, in honor of the late Patterson, who served as Sports Backers’ manager of community affairs until his death last August.

Allen lives in Richmond and, through Fitness Warriors, teaches family group classes in the Fairfield Court public housing development. She also coaches youth in the Sports Backers’ Kids Run RVA program.

“It has really opened my eyes to wanting to do more for the community,” Allen said. As an instructor, “people gravitate to us, they feel welcome (and) even after the class is over, they just want to talk.”

Among those in attendance Saturday night to cheer on their favorite warrior was Sylvia Burnett, who took classes with warrior graduate Cheryl Easter. Burnett said Easter made it feel like more than a fitness class, always ending their Tuesday night classes with an inspirational saying. Burnett said Easter also adapted the class to include movements for people with limited mobility. Everyone, Burnett said, was included.

“If you need to be motivated ... if you need to be encouraged, this is your class,” Burnett said. “She makes it fun, but her focus is for us to keep moving.”

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