You see a lot through five-plus years of covering Harrisburg City Council meetings.
Fights and arguments. Council members muttering and swearing. Power plays and shifting alliances. People getting ejected bodily by police.
I’ve been through one bankruptcy filing, two receivers, three mayors and four or five different PennLive reporters.
But something happened recently that I’d never seen before.
Last November, a group of women (mostly women anyway) began attending council meetings to make a plea for a shared cause. At that meeting, they cautiously stepped before the public microphone to urge council to help save a program that they said had changed their lives.
Then they came back in December, a little bolder, even enduring a four-hour budget hearing to get a turn to speak, and twice again in January. By the time late February rolled around, City Council chambers was packed with the ladies of Zoombalicious.
Back at the first meeting in November, few people in the room had any idea what Zoombalicious was or why it mattered. The assembled officials, reporters and citizens were there mainly to hear Mayor Eric Papenfuse deliver his budget address, which now was going to be delayed by a queue of women talking up a Zumba fitness program. They even had handouts!
But then the ladies spoke, and the importance of the program began to sink in.
Zumba had helped them lose weight, had improved their health, had boosted their energy and confidence and self-esteem, they said.
And, now, it was under threat.
At year-end, a wellness grant from Highmark would expire, potentially dooming the free program. That’s why the ladies were there. They wanted to know if the city could find the money to continue it.
“Basically, we’re here to try to convince you to keep the program going,” said one speaker. “There have been amazing results with a lot of the people there.”
The Zumba class regularly attracted 70 or 80 women each session, she said, and it was held four times a week. It had become an important part of their lives, promoting not just good health, but purpose, support and friendship.
Council President Wanda Williams said it was the first she had heard that the program would end and recommended that the group meet with Jackie Parker, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development.
So the city of Harrisburg—struggling with serious budget, crime, parking and personnel problems—tried to find an answer to Zoombalicious.
Over the coming months, several solutions were suggested. The mayor said he would try to secure a new grant, but, when that failed, proposed allocating some $5,000 from the city’s general fund. That idea, though, caused its own set of problems. The city would have to put the contract out for general bid, which meant that the program’s beloved instructor, Sandy Johnson, probably wouldn’t end up teaching the class.
That’s what brought out the biggest crowd yet. In late February, 50 or 60 women (and a few men) crowded into City Council chambers to make personal pleas for their program and their teacher. This time, they didn’t submit testimonials in writing, as most had before, but went face-to-face with the mayor and council.
One woman said she had lost 54 pounds in six months.
Another said the class helped her believe in herself again.
A young man said that Zumba had helped ease his bipolar disorder.
All credited Johnson, as much as exercise, saying they couldn’t imagine Zoombalicious without her.
“Without these ladies, I wouldn’t be able to stand before you and say that I’m happy to be healthy,” said one speaker.
Johnson, in fact, had been teaching the class four times a week for free since funding expired in December.
“They want me, they need me,” she told council members amidst loud applause.
Johnson also announced some good news. A day before the meeting, she had met with city spokeswoman Joyce Davis, who proposed another solution. The program would be put under a sports-related nonprofit, M.O.S.E.L.F. RBI, which would allow the group to accept grants and outside funds, while retaining control.
“We had a lot of obstacles to overcome to keep this Zumba class,” Johnson said, thanking both Davis and Williams.
Over the years, I’ve seen many people speak before City Council.
Many have brought up personal problems that are beyond council’s purview (the school system, parking). Others have asked council to address serious societal issues that members, unfortunately, can do little about (racism, homelessness).
The (mostly) ladies of Zoombalicious took another approach.
They brought to council a problem that might be solvable. They were gracious and friendly, committed and passionate. They were organized, prepared and persistent. They showed an understanding of the city’s constraints. They were realistic and flexible.
Yes, they proved how important an exercise program—and instructor—is to their lives. But they also gave a lesson in civic engagement, in how to take an issue, advocate for a solution and see it through to resolution.
Would you like to help the (mostly) ladies of Zoombalicious? You can mail donations to support the Zumba program to: M.O.S.E.L.F. RBI, P.O. Box 1541, Harrisburg, Pa., 17105. For more information on the free classes, which take place at Foose School in Harrisburg, visit the Facebook page: Zoombalicious.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.