Illustration of various people working out with the words Life is Humbling, Fight Back and Nothing is Impossible

Images Courtesy of Bootcamps for Change / Graphic Design by June Anderson

How a single workout led to a brand-new life

Bootcamps for Change helps youth experiencing homelessness get fit—and find a brighter future

When we’re young and dream about the future, homelessness is never part of the reverie. It definitely wasn’t for Hashim Al Hebshi. “I had a life. It was going great: I was going to school, I was thinking about my future,” he says. “And then everything collapsed. It was terrifying.”

Photo of Hashim from his instagram with a quote from him above

Speaking with 22-year-old Al Hebshi today (he goes by the nickname Hash), it’s hard to imagine he’d ever be daunted by any challenge. He’s confident, smart, well-spoken and ambitious. But that confidence is hard-won. Back in the summer of 2018, he was at one of the lowest points in his life. Up till then, he’d been studying abroad at a college in the U.S., successfully pursuing a marketing degree. Then, President Trump issued his controversial travel ban and it dramatically changed the direction of Hash’s life.

“As soon as I finished school, I wouldn’t be able to stay,” he says. “I’d have to go back home and I wouldn’t be able to come back.” All the reasons he’d chosen to make his home in the U.S.—safety, education, job opportunities—would be gone. Even his life was potentially in danger.

Before he could finish his degree—and after an emotional conversation with his dad— Al Hebshi decided to look north of the border for a new place to call home. “I kept thinking about Canada. It seemed like the right fit [for me].” So, he packed up a few belongings and made his way first to Montreal then on to Toronto, successfully applying for refugee status.

Al Hebshi had a new country to call home. But with no friends or family, a half-completed degree and very little financial means, he found himself without an actual home. After making what felt like hundreds of calls, he found United Way agency Horizons for Youth, a shelter for young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are experiencing homelessness.

“When I arrived at the shelter, and everyone was in my age group, I could literally see there was no difference between them and me,” Al Hebshi says. “The only difference was we each had our own story of how we ended up homeless.”

In Toronto, 10 percent of people who are experiencing homelessness are youth. It’s 23 percent in Peel and a staggering 26 percent in York. That can include everything from couch surfing with friends to sleeping rough (on the streets). For many, the only thing that separates a young person who is housed and one experiencing homelessness is access to opportunities—community connections, jobs, education, mentorship and more.

Photo of Hashim from his instagram account with a quote above

For Al Hebshi, opportunity came in an unexpected form.

“I came back to the shelter one day after working out and the [Horizons for Youth staff] told me about a fitness program called Bootcamps for Change,” he explains. “I went to watch, but there was this instinct in me to start [participating]. And then I was showing people how to do it right and giving them some tips.”

The program’s founder, Katie Heggtveit, was immediately impressed by Al Hebshi’s coaching potential. A social purpose enterprise, Bootcamps for Change is Heggtveit’s brainchild—and her passion. It provides weekly fitness programming for youth shelters, as well as personal fitness training certification through their Sweatier for the Better Scholarship (#SweatierfortheBetter). Participants also get mentorship and employment opportunities. Heggtveit even helps graduates of the certificate program with their résumé and cover letter writing.

The concept was born when Heggtveit discovered that funding for a wellness program at a local shelter had been cut. She had more than a decade of experience volunteering with homeless youth, and a deep-seated personal commitment to fitness as a way to build physical strength, mental health and resilience. It was the ideal way to use her expertise to make a difference.

“The reality is that a lot of shelters are low on funding and can’t provide fitness programming. It’s considered a luxury,” Heggtveit says. Instead, shelters have to prioritize the essentials for their clients, like food and a place to sleep. “That’s where Bootcamps comes in. We take on the fitness for free.”

Since 2017, this 22-year-old has expanded Bootcamps for Change from Toronto to Halifax and Waterloo. New branches are launching in Thunder Bay and London in summer 2019, and in Vancouver in summer 2020.

Photo of Hashim from his instagram account with a quote above

But when you ask Heggtveit about her proudest experiences, it’s not the program’s success she gushes about. It’s the people, like Al Hebshi. He’s a Sweatier for the Better Scholarship recipient and a newly minted trainer who has embarked on additional training and a three-month mentorship with GoodLife Fitness. He’s more than a success story for Heggtveit – he’s an inspiration.

“Hash breaks down every stereotype of what people experiencing homelessness are like: Homeless means lazy. Homeless means alcoholic. Homeless means drugs,” Heggtveit says. “Hash proves that those are just not true. He has more grit and perseverance than many of the housed people I know.”

And, for Al Hebshi, the experience has been life-changing. He’s embracing his new role as an inspiration and a homelessness advocate. “I want to show people that I had a normal life. I became homeless. And now I’m going to do great,” he says. “I want to share my story and motivate others. I want to show them that no matter how much life is humbling you, you can fight back and climb that wall. You’re going to have to work hard, but what isn’t hard work in life? Nothing is impossible.”

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• Want to get involved with Bootcamps for Change, leading fitness programs or providing employment opportunities to Sweatier for the Better scholarship recipients? Contact program founder Katie Heggtveit at info@bootcampsforchange.com.