At The Phoenix, Rising from Troubled Past
LOWELL -- Steve Stirk couldn’t break out of the nasty cycle.
Released from prison, nowhere to go where he’d feel safe, relapse, and back behind bars.
But after leaving Billerica’s Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in October -- his fourth incarceration for drug-related offenses and receiving stolen property -- the 30-year-old man found a game-changing workout program.
He checked out The Phoenix in Lowell -- a sober active community, where those leaving treatment and others can work out for free.
After the first class, Stirk was hooked. It’s the first time after jail when he’s actually had a support group, he said.
“This is a world of difference,” he said next to the stationary bikes and the whiteboard listing the workout of the day, consisting of pull-ups, push-ups and squats.
“It’s a lot more than just the workout itself,” he added. “The community here is great.”
The Phoenix community is a growing part of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office Re-entry Center, located at 291 Summer St. in Lowell.
In addition to the gym, people at the re-entry center can attend educational courses and HiSET (high-school equivalency) prep, get guidance on resume building and job searching, and receive services from the Medication Assisted Treatment And Directed Opioid Recovery (MATADOR) program.
The goal is to offer “one-stop shopping for successful re-entry,” emphasized Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian.
“It’s about creating a healthy environment so we can continue to make you feel healthy and strong, and lead you in the right direction,” he said in one of the re-entry center’s classrooms on Tuesday.
The Phoenix and other programs at the re-entry center started in August.
The facility used to house the Office of Community Corrections with the Department of Probation, but the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office ended that relationship there.
“We wanted to grow in other areas that we knew were necessary,” Koutoujian said.
For years, since seeing the founder of CrossFit on TV, the sheriff had wanted to start a free CrossFit program. Koutoujian wasn’t able to connect with the founder, but then he found out about The Phoenix’s national workout program.
It has worked out even better than any CrossFit unit because The Phoenix has people with expertise in recovery, the sheriff said.
All of the instructors are in recovery themselves, said Jon Moreno, program coordinator for The Phoenix program in Lowell, which is grant-funded.
“Physical fitness is key, helping someone during early recovery,” he said. “And people here have that sense of feeling that they’re part of a community, in a safe and a supporting environment. Having that community just changes someone’s whole trajectory.”
The program can help shift the perception of what recovery is -- to something that’s fun and healthy, he added.
Attendance has been steadily increasing since the August opening.
Tuesday and Thursday nights have seen the most people working out, in the five- to 10-person range, Moreno said.
Those coming for a workout must be sober for at least the previous 48 hours. Family and friends are also welcome.
The workouts are modeled off CrossFit, the program coordinator said. A CrossFit membership can be very expensive, but this free program removes that financial barrier.
“We can modify a workout for any physical limitations,” Moreno added. “If someone has a bad knee, we can give someone a low-impact workout.”
They’ll turn on some music during the workout, and can attract someone who came to the re-entry center for HiSet prep, help with their resume or other programs.
That person will hear the music and walk into the gym to see what’s going on, Moreno said.
“We can see the interest growing and growing,” he said. “It’s helping people integrate back into the community, and be as successful as they can be.”
They plan to add more classes, including yoga and meditation.
Stirk is looking forward to continuing to work out there. It has been a total lifestyle change for him since getting released from jail.
Instead of worrying about where he’ll go to get his next bag, now he’s thinking about how he needs to beat his workout time.
“It’s a whole different way to look at life,” he said.
And everybody there wants to see him succeed, Moreno stressed.
“We’re all in his corner,” he said of Stirk. “We all want him to do well.”
For more information on The Phoenix, email email@example.com or call 617-417-3378.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.