Building Community through Exercise at Victoria Park

by ChoralInc,
COVID lockdowns were tough for everybody. For those (like myself) who tried to keep up a daily exercise habit, the shuttering of gyms was particularly difficult from both a physical and mental health perspective. For my own personal exercise habits, simply going on walks and doing pushups in the backyard just wasn't enough.

In late 2020, the new exercise area at Victoria Park finally opened for public use. While fairly simple, the selection of pull-up bars, dip bars, and other equipment helped get my exercise routine back on track. Starting in December 2020, I began a daily routine to visit this exercise area every afternoon. It wasn't as comfortable as heading indoors to a commercial gym, but piles of snow and freezing hands were still a small price to pay to keep my mental health afloat in the middle of pandemic lockdowns.

I soon realized that others must have had similar reasons for visiting the exercise area, too. Over the months that followed, a regular community formed around that exercise area. What began as simple greetings in between exercises soon turned into at-length conversations about people's origin stories, families, and dreams for the future. By the spring, there wasn't a day I could show up without seeing a familiar face to chat with.

The community that formed around this exercise park was, without a doubt, the most diverse group of people I've had the pleasure to bond with in my 15-year history in Kitchener. I suppose we came together over a fundamental need for movement and exercise, and in a place that costed us nothing to gather. I learned about the Belarusian community in Kitchener, recipes for Caribbean food, and the stories of longstanding Kitchener residents who recalled life from generations ago in Victoria park.

One particular couple seemed to be there every day - rain, shine, or snow - and we slowly formed a simple, yet warm and fulfilling relationship. They were almost 40 years my senior, and were retirees who liked to stay active. I'd often end up staying longer than expected, chatting with these two about all things life and family, and over the months I had the pleasure of meeting several of their family members who would visit them at the park.

We got talking houses one day, and I mentioned the general whereabouts of my own home in Downtown Kitchener. Weeks later, they mentioned noticing my wife's garden, which opened yet another topic of conversation. I told them I didn't have much background in gardening myself, but that my wife was new to it all and eagerly trying to work on things around our place. Within a week, my wife and I found ourselves invited to their backyard for a morning coffee, where we swapped stories about our lives in the city, and were also gifted a variety of extra plants that they dug out of their garden to help fill ours out.

Fast forward 6 months, and gyms have long since reopened, colder weather has come back upon us again, and I've yielded to the comforts of heading back indoors to the gym again for the last few months. There's community in this places as well, but it's different - no views of our city, no chaos of families and children out for walks or playdates, and no spontaneous connections with new and old friends walking by. Some days I wish I had the extra grit to bear the elements and get my outdoor routine back together.

From where I stand in the morning to make coffee, I can look outside and see two hydrangeas sitting neatly in our garden. Thanks for those gifts, Dan and Sharon - I hope you are both well, and know that every time I walk through Victoria Park, I'm keeping my eye out for the both of you.

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