Debbie King wants to keep Parkdale moving through the cold, dark months of winter and has brought together a team of young Black fitness and business leaders to help her do it.

Stella Isaac was an obvious choice to join her @ParkdaleFitPlay team, with the varsity long-jumper having built a loyal following around the west-end neighbourhood for her “Salty Saturdays” street workouts, which she started in May and kept going every week until November.

“I really got to know my neighbours over this time and community has taken on a new meaning for me,” Isaac said in a video interview. “We're more than just a neighbourhood, we’re a community. We know each other, we look after each other.”

With the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic stretching into its second year, King and Isaac both said staying motivated and engaged in community was essential to their well-being.

“I can work out and take care of my physical health, my mental health, but also my social health, with people I’ve grown to know and care for during this crazy time,” said Isaac, a recent York University graduate who is now working on a teaching degree from Tyndale University.

Isaac’s NaCl Saturdays (as in sodium chloride, or salt) would start at 6:16 p.m. for alliteration’s sake, and so those assembled could get in an hour of exercise before heading to the 7:30 show of support outside the nearby Elm Grove Living Centre led by her brother's drumming.

What started with just her mother and siblings and perhaps a neighbour in May grew to a 20-strong crew by the summer.

She had to call off the weekly meets in November due to the cold and the tighter restrictions put on even physically distanced outdoor gatherings as COVID-19 cases climbed in the city’s second wave.

Stella Isaac competed in long jump at a varsity level while at York University. Photo by Natalie St. Pierre-Jubb

Enter King’s Parkdale FitPlay, which runs until Feb. 28 and challenges people to follow along with local fitness leaders as they demonstrate exercises associated with the letters of the alphabet in various parks in the area.

“We're more than just a neighbourhood, we’re a community. We know each other, we look after each other,” says Stella Isaac. #ParkdaleFitPlay

“It's winter — it's colder, it’s darker — it's a hard time with our motivation, but it's also a hard time mentally,” said King, known on Instagram as @supafitmama. “It's a time when we really need to put that effort in to get moving, to get fresh air, and to do the things that we know will benefit our health.”

The project King built — where A is for 10 high knees and B is for five frog jumps, for example — is adaptable for different fitness levels, since participants are free to choose a short or long word or even a phrase if they’re looking for a challenge.

King and Isaac are joined in the venture by yoga instructor Rochelle Miller, fitness coach Oneil Barnes, and Emile Reed from the Boxing Loft.

King has also enlisted the help of local Black-owned businesses Jr’s Natural Health and Bulk and Parkdale Pet Foods, which are offering prizes sponsored by the Parkdale Village business improvement area.

Debbie King aims to get Parkdale moving and supporting Black-owned businesses with her Parkdale FitPlay campaign. Photo via Instagram / @parkdalefitplay

She hopes the initiative might help people stay active and also put those Black community leaders and business owners taking part in front of a wider audience.

“We have fabulous leaders, fabulous business owners and community members that just aren’t always at the forefront,” King said. “They might not get the big promotions or a lot of attention, but they have so much value to add. And if we can just continue to create connections and awareness of the things that they can contribute, we are all better off for it.”

King and Isaac both said learning to differentiate between the things they can and cannot control has helped them navigate the disruptions the pandemic has caused.

“For me, the things that I can control are taking care of myself and doing the things that I know will help foster greater well-being,” said King, a masters track and field athlete who was gearing up for a world championship meet before the pandemic.

“I am just trusting God, honestly,” said Isaac, who is now also teaching online classes for the nearby Good Space yoga studio. “This pandemic is showing me I'm not really in control of many of the things that I thought I was in control of. A lot of the things that I'm doing right now were not in my plan.”

One thing Isaac is focused on is making sure fitness options are accessible and affordable for women of colour, and especially Black women.

“If I'm given this opportunity to teach in this space, I want to make sure that people who look like me feel welcome, and they are welcome in the space,” she said.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer