Physical Activity Breaks Down Barriers in this Vitus Group Community

Partner spotlight from PHA’s 2016 Annual Progress Report

Everyone knows physical activity is good for the body. Elia Mrak has always believed it could do so much more than improve physical health.

He believed it could improve relationships. Build self confidence. Break down social barriers. Restore vitality. He was sure it could do all that and so much more.

So when the Seattle-based dance coach was asked by affordable housing developer Vitus to bring a dance and movement program to San Diego’s Meadowbrook Apartments, he leapt at the chance.

“The work that I did at Meadowbrook was borne out of the last 10 years of searching for how to make what I intuitively felt and knew to be healthy for the body into relationships with other people – how to bring that inspiration and health to communities through movement,” he said. “I was looking for ways to make that accessible to all kinds of people.”

For its part, Vitus was looking for a way to bring greater health and wellness to a housing development it had recently purchased and renovated. Vitus, committed to providing a better life for residents of what was once a deteriorating public housing project, is one of PHA’s Active Design Verified (ADV) partners – companies dedicated to marrying good health with affordable housing.

Vitus actively encourages other members of the affordable housing industry to consider Active Design principle, including our financing partners and fellow developers.

In overhauling Meadowbrook Apartments, Vitus had installed a new playground and community garden, along with better security so residents could enjoy a greater sense of community in their 22-acre development. Mrak was brought in to provide free, physical activity programming for six weeks that could get residents moving and interacting on a daily basis.

He taught daily dance and movement classes to people who hailed from countries all over the world, including Mexico, Iraq, Syria and the Philippines. He worked with adults as well as kids, who attended the same schools but rarely interacted with each other outside the classroom.

“I wanted them to see dance as expression and an opportunity to be with other people they wouldn’t normally want to be with,” said Mrak. “They might not hang out at school together or eat the same food or even speak the same language, but the idea was to break down some of those divides and use dance to bring people together.”

And it worked. Over the course of six weeks, neighbors got to know neighbors. Mothers and daughters bonded. Siblings who previously wanted only to stay inside watching TV looked forward to spending time dancing together with their mom. “I saw huge changes in the community,” he said. “It was not just about getting a workout or losing weight. These people felt more connected to themselves and the people around them.”

People like 15-year-old Klara, who used to think of exercise as work, quickly learned it could also be fun and help her to be a better person. “Now I’m more outgoing and less self-conscious,” she said. “My perception of being healthy has changed for the better.”

View Vitus Group’s 2016 Annual Progress Report verified results.

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