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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — When the two-week “Pause” started on Nov. 30, gyms across the state – including Ocean State Community Wellness in North Kingstown – were forced to temporarily shut down for two weeks. The pause put Ocean State Community Wellness Executive Director Kevin Brochu in a tough spot.

“We’re trying to make the best out of a pretty unfortunate situation for us as a gym, that we’re being asked to pause our operations for what we hope is two weeks,” Brochu said.

Brochu strongly disagreed with the state’s decision, arguing that gyms like his are safe. He said the OSCW has been inspected six times by the state since the start of the pandemic and has been commended for its cleanliness and adherence to guidelines. But despite that, he had no choice but to temporarily shut down. However, while his gym is closed, he wanted to do something that would benefit both his members and the community as a whole.

“We have to try to keep our members engaged in some way, shape or form, and we’re also looking to try and help support local small businesses who are just as equally impacted as we are,” Brochu said.

Then, while driving one day, it hit him: a local shopping scavenger hunt in Wickford that encouraged both staying active and buying local at the same time.

OSCW members and non-members alike who see the OSCW logo sticker in a participating store window are encouraged to take a video of themselves doing 25 bodyweight squats, post it on social media and tag both OSCW and the participating local business. They’ll then receive a $25 gift card to said business.

“We just figured that this would be a good way to connect with the local businesses and then also give them an outlet to participate with us and our social media followers, and then just kind of spread the positivity as much as we can,” Brochu said.

To Brochu, the scavenger hunt drives home everything that the OSCW stands for in its mission.

“A lot of the businesses when we went and approached them were like, ‘Well, what’s in it for you?’ and there’s nothing directly in it for us, in the fact that we’re not looking at it that way, we’re just looking at how we can help,” Brochu said. “Our mission within Ocean State Community Wellness is to make the people in our communities fit for life, but we’re also part of the community, so we want to help others succeed, so for us it was getting people out, getting people engaged and making them be a little more active while also helping them support local businesses.”

Six businesses in Wickford Village itself quickly signed up, though soon other businesses in town, such as The Nail Bar North, and even out of town businesses, like Salon Stella in Exeter, wanted in.

“A lot of these businesses have participated in just saying, ‘Hey, we’ve seen what you’re doing and we want to be involved,’ so it’s really cool because they’re starting to see that, ‘Hey, this is neat, it gives us some publicity’ but it also goes back to being part of a really tight-knit community,” Brochu said.

So far, Brochu says, the feedback from members and businesses alike has been very positive.

“It’s been fantastic. If you look on social media, especially when some of our members were getting their kids involved and their kids are doing the squats on video, it’s been really, really good,” Brochu said. “It’s great because we’ve had other businesses reach out to us who are not within downtown Wickford... We’ve had members call up, say, ‘This is great, the videos are fun, it’s good to see, it’s nice to get out,’ so it’s been super positive for us. It’s exactly what I had hoped for in just trying to create a little bit of levity in a fairly stressful situation.”

Brochu said him and the OSCW team are working on similar ideas to encourage physical activity and support the local economy while keeping people’s spirits up during a troubling time.

“The biggest thing that we’re fighting right now is anxiety, depression, loss of a schedule (and) loss of normal daily activities, especially for some of our older members (for whom) this is an integral part of their lives,” Brochu said. “They come here every day at 6 a.m. or they come at 11 a.m. and they meet with people and they engage, and there’s a social aspect of it, that mental aspect of it and the physical aspect of it and now that’s gone, so this at least hopefully allows them to get out, get them out in the community and they can talk, they can do something they’re familiar with with exercise, and we just kind of give them a break from their day because right now anxiety, depression and all of those psychological issues that they could potentially be dealing with are really critical.”

Overall, Brochu says helping to foster a supportive environment between local small businesses and community members relates back to one of OSCW’s most important pillars: community.

“It’s exactly the whole reason why we started this business: to be part of a community, to be part of a group of individuals that are looking to strengthen the bonds in the community, but then also to give back,” Brochu said. “We’re a nonprofit, so for us to be able to give back to the community is huge. We just had 30 of our members participate in a ‘Lose the Stuffing’ challenge over the Thanksgiving through Christmas period, in that they donated $100 each (and) with that $100 donation it went directly into purchasing food at Ocean State Job Lot. Ocean State Job Lot gave us a 40 percent discount on the food that we purchased, so we were able to get about $4300-$4400 worth of food that we then donated to the North Kingstown Food Pantry, the Jonnycake Center and then the East Greenwich Collaborative Food Pantry, so that for us is huge because we’re able to just go and do these things and it fits our mission.”

To Brochu, that’s what being in the business of community wellness is all about.

“We’re literally trying to help people. If you’re looking to get fit for a specific event or sport or whatever, we can do that, but then if you’re struggling to put food on the table or if you’re a small business and you’re struggling to get people in the door, what can we do to help you in any way that we possibly can,” Brochu said. “Ocean State Job Lot – in the 40 years that they’ve been in business – community and giving back to the community has been paramount and we’re able to fulfill that mission as well.”

The morale boost is not only just meant for members, Brochu says, but his employees as well.

“I’ve got to keep them engaged and I have to keep them positive, because it’s very easy to get negative in this situation, so I want the staff to be able to come out and be part of this and do something that takes their mind off a negative situation, that for the next two weeks we are closed,” Brochu said.

His main message to the community as a whole during COVID-19, he says, even if it’s become cliche by now, is to remember that you’re not alone.

“I don’t want to sound too corny, but we’re all in the same spot,” Brochu said. “It’s a very, very difficult and challenging situation, and the more that we can help each other as businesses, but also just as people, and support, that’s going to make the situation far, far better for everybody and that’s what we’re solely focused on, just making sure that we can impact as many lives in a positive manner as possible.”

To find OSCW on social media, go to Ocean State Community Wellness on Facebook or search @oscwellnessri on Instagram. For more information on them, visit their website, oscwellness.org

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