Heavy lift: Ex-cons find peace and even a paycheck in the weight room

BOSTON - For 26-year-old Angel Lacourt, the gym is an oasis, a place to move beyond his violent past.

He grew up in a tough Boston neighborhood. He watched friends die as a member of a street gang.

“These are five of my friends that passed away,” he told CBS News, showing the tattoos on his arm. “It was either kill or be killed. That’s the way of the streets out here.”

Eight years ago, Lacourt was a star running back with a scholarship offer from Boston College. But he fumbled that away after shooting and wounding a man, landing him in prison.

When he got out, his probation officer sent him to InnerCity Weightlifting, a program started by 30-year-old Jon Feinman with $10,000 of his own money.

Why lifting weights?

“It’s a hook,” Feinman told CBS News.  “Weight training is the common denominator. So it is not the traditional mentor-student relationship. It's 'We're lifting some weights, you know, how can we help you outside the gym?"

The inspiration for the program was Elexson Hercules, a former gang member who Feinman met while working for an after-school program.

 

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The Boston program InnerCity Weightlifting aims to "reduce youth violence by getting our students off the streets and into the gym."
CBS News
 Elexson got his G.E.D. and a full-time job. But last year, he was killed by a rival gang member while walking home from a store.

“Just as they've turned their life around doesn't mean that that the people they crossed before are gonna forgive them for it,” said Feinman.

Feinman’s goal: Provide a safe place where they can receive counseling, take classes and look for jobs.

They come from neighborhoods along Blue Hill Avenue, where 80 percent of Boston’s violent crime takes place.

Feinman drives his van into the violent neighborhoods every day, making sure his students get home safely.

“At the end of the day, I don't want to let these guys down,” Lacourt said. “I mean man, they've did so much for me.”

For those who excel in the gym, there’s even a paycheck -- up to $100 an hour when they become certified personal trainers to business executives around Boston.

“If we don't open that door, if we don't allow them the opportunity to follow that positive path, then we guarantee the outcome that none of us want,” Feinman said.

For many here this is a path to a better life -- with a lot of heavy lifting -- that one day may pay off.