Tulsa Fellow Christopher McNeil is helping students at North Tulsa’s McLain High School improve their eating habits, gain problem-solving skills and sustain healthy lifestyle practices through an entrepreneurial program that trains participants to be certified fitness professionals for the local YMCA and wellness ambassadors that connect local nonprofits with the community.
“The students will generate income, build a professional reputation, and deliver healing and confidence to their community through teaching a resistance training class called Strength Train Together to people of all ages and sizes in North Tulsa,” said McNeil. “As Wellness Ambassadors, they will provide direction to the many nonprofit organizations that spread resources throughout the community by helping prioritize and distribute the resources to where they are needed most. My desire is for students to share the skills and opportunities that others have shared with them and rebuild the prosperity of their neighborhoods with the same entrepreneurial spirit that is the foundation of this program.”
McNeil, a student at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, has been thrilled with the support of community organizations like the YMCA, Crossover Community Impact, Food On the Move and other local businesses; as well as the commitment of his students.
“I started in April 2017 with a dry erase board at a high school lunch trying to sell complete strangers on a dream,” said McNeil. “It’s amazing to think of what we’ve accomplished just eight months later.”
All told, 62 students have participated in the project in some way, with 12 showing up consistently each month. Those 12 have received training to become certified instructors of Strength Train Together, a choreographed weight lifting class set to a pre-selected soundtrack. McNeil’s instructors-in-training must stay in shape, stay on beat, and coach proper technique, recovery, and alternative movements. In addition, the participants must learn to manage their time, personal finances, and class attendance as if it is a small business.
“This project provides the perfect opportunity for a youth to transition to adulthood by getting paid to be functionally and physically active,” said McNeil, whose students will complete their training in April.
Already, four have been hired by the YMCA and started their jobs this month, and a fifth has been hired elsewhere as an instructor. The remaining seven have found other jobs related to wellness. All 12 have received certification in handling food in commercial settings, and four have spent time shadowing professionals engaged in work that they’re interested in.
“These students have found a fire in themselves, and it has been a honor for me to be a part of their spark!,” McNeil said.
But even students who didn’t participate each month have benefitted from McNeil’s program. Three have had the opportunity to shadow someone doing work that they’re interested in. Additionally, four participants recently requested a meeting with their principal to discuss establishing a school club to provide future students with similar opportunities and learning experiences to those of McNeil’s program.
One also landed a job at a fast food restaurant after having lunch there with McNeil. “I encouraged him to ask the manager for an application before we left,” McNeil said. “When he finally got the courage to do it, the manager hired him on the spot and he’s had a job with steady income now for nine months!”
McNeil’s desire to serve the youth of North Tulsa and the broader community stems in part from his interest in the area’s history, specifically what has become known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, in which an angry white mob leveled Greenwood, an affluent black neighborhood in that part of the city, resulting in at least 300 dead and over 100 black-owned businesses burned to the ground. The thriving neighborhood, the center of which was known at the time as the “Black Wall Street,” never recovered economically.
“I was shocked to find out that an area that gave rise to millionaires had fallen into despair due to hate and violence,” said McNeil, who moved to Tulsa in 2013.
He was also dismayed to learn that North Tulsa’s average life expectancy is 10 years less than the average elsewhere in the city. The Schweitzer Fellowship gave McNeil a reason to examine some of the causes of this disparity and work on a solution. The difference in life expectancy, McNeil learned, stemmed largely from high rates of cancer and heart disease caused by food insecurity.
Drawing on his experience working with disadvantaged entrepreneurs in Cape Town, South Africa and through the Oklahoma State University’s Riata School of Entrepreneurship, McNeil knew that food insecurity was as much connected to North Tulsa’s lack of grocery stores as it was to its lack of economic opportunity. Ultimately, that’s what inspired him to create a program that offered young people the chance to get a head start skill acquisition and creating a more economically stable future, which in turn will allow them to help rebuild their community.
“I have had the privilege of exposing high school students to careers and income generating opportunities that align with their passions and allow them to attract and build value in their own community,” said McNeil.
But he makes clear that he did not implement his project in isolation. McNeil said the most surprising aspect of his Fellowship was the array of support he received from across Tulsa—including people he has known in other capacities—even though his project was confined to just its northern neighborhoods.
“From working with students whose parents lived down the street from me in Lawton, Oklahoma, to winning the hearts of corporate executives at the YMCA, every week has been a humbling experience in seeing how important it is to be kind to others and remember names,” said McNeil.
He also credits his family for helping him juggle school work, Fellowship hours, and personal responsibilities.
“I found that when I prioritize my family, I got the best results in the other two areas,” said McNeil. “My wife, Jessica, would read every document or message before I sent them to leaders, community partners, and friends while being the primary caregiver for our son Moses, who was born a month after I was accepted as a Schweitzer Fellow. My parents and sister sat through all of my crazy ideas, and my friends and extended family accepted rain checks for cancelled plans. To me, being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life means acknowledging, protecting, and prioritizing the blessings that have been given to me so that I may continue share and sustain that same compassion with others.”