By Jim Brown
There’s something special about the corner of 5th & Berks Streets in lower Northern Liberties.
As a result of the collaboration between Vellesa Jones and Christopher Smalls of 365 Fitness Loft and Boxing Gym, as well as Vellesa’s non-profit, “The Lord Is My Shepherd 23 rd Psalm,” a 24-hour fitness hub has been created.
Opening a year after the pandemic began in 2021, business started slowly when it came to gym memberships and participation in some of the other activities at their facility, Jones said. She tapped into her faith and creativity, developing other uses for the facility to engage in within its multi-racial and multi-religious community.
As a result of her innovative adaptation, Jones was named the Joe Frazier Educational Icon Award winner for 2022. Jones received the award from the late Joe Frazier’s daughter, Judge Jacqueline Frazier-Lyde, on the champ’s 78th birthday on January 12. Jones’ non-profit has been a beacon to the residents of lower Northern Liberties during its most vulnerable time during the pandemic. The organization is licensed in three states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia.
“Vellesa delivers,” Frazier-Lyde said.“Vellesa delivers excellence in service almost effortlessly because she has so much passion. She’s gifted and she has a heart for others. And she’s so selfless. She’s an educator. She creates a safe climate for the kids to learn and she was so destined to be a teacher.”
“In any sport, we need knockout artists, and she is a knockout artist as far as knocking out issues at her place (non-profit) 23rd Outreach “The Lord Is My Shepherd” [is concerned],” Frazier-Lyde added. “She provides information to communities that need to be connected. And I just love her and I admire her — I celebrate her. I’m thankful that we live [in the] time of Vellesa Jones, because we have a lot of needs, and she is definitely someone who delivers. She delivers knockout services.”
“I want to educate and just be a person who is [unique] and helpful,” Jones said. “Like I say on the radio station [on her “To God Be The Glory” Facebook Live Podcast], ‘You’re not alone. Let me comfort you. Let me feed you. Let me educate you. Let me give you a job. Let me be your savior. We can weather this storm together.’”
Jones was able to add some valuable community services and special projects to help her neighborhood. She was able to build partnerships with Philabundance and Small Things food distribution centers and helped over 500 families and senior citizens.
She has also implemented an after-school program called Homework Help and a re-entry program for incarcerated individuals to assist in their return to their communities.
Jones worked in the Philadelphia Public School system for over 22 years and has been advocating for youth that come to the fitness and boxing loft for their programs to avoid the gun violence and other bad influences in their neighborhood.
“Well, being that this is our first year, we hadn’t had a lot of activities on the outside,” Jones said. “We just recently held a [“Brawl for it All”] boxing tournament. We had 16 bouts and we gave out title belts. So, we gave them the spotlight and they came from different gyms [all] over.”
Jones is planning to expand the programs on offer to include activities like pro-boxing, she said.
“In our karate program, they (the youth) have graduated in their colored ranks and we did a ceremony with them as well,” Jones said. “So, we do quite a bit with the kids in the community and we give back as much as possible.”
This summer, Jones wants to create a summer reading program, a youth agriculture program and hold a movie night event.
Jones and Smalls enjoy reaching out and helping others, even when it isn’t fitness related. Last Christmas, they held a Christmas giveaway where they gave away 1,000 coats, 150 bikes and toys that filled the perimeter of the boxing ring.
“What I like about fitness and just being a trainer is seeing people push themselves,” said Quadrelle Harris, one of the gym’s personal trainers. “I like that they bring us more opportunities (to the gym). For example, we had a fight the other day, and [there were] a bunch of kids that came through with all the coaches [who saw] the kids doing all their moves (in the gym). So, I think that’s probably the best part. They are really strong for it and making sure that everybody gets some work.”
As we traveled through the facility on a tour, Logan Neumann, who works out at the gym, spoke about what she likes about it..
“First of all, it’s Black-owned, so, I support Black businesses,” Neumann said. “But, not only that, when I walk in, I feel welcomed every time. It’s not that I’m coming to the gym, it’s that I’m coming to see family. In addition to coming to the gym and working out, I always [seem] to get caught up in conversations with somebody else that goes here — a trainer and of course the owner Ms. V., who everyone likes and that’s what I really appreciate.”
Recently, the 365 Fitness Loft and Boxing Gym was rated the #1 gym in Philadelphia by USA Boxing.