When Aerobics First was called up to receive the 2011 Ubuntu award, owners Luke MacDonald and Dean Cheverie thought they heard wrong. The little store on Quinpool Road in Halifax, Nova Scotia was recognized out of 900 candidates for being most connected to the community at large. It was the first time a Canadian or international store had won the award at the American Grand Gala in Austin, Texas.

Aerobics First has been tackling community development from the bottom up for almost 40 years. Its grassroots perspective focuses on empathy and action. “Our work in the store is how we empathetically act with people who have problems,” says MacDonald. “We are facilitating someone’s ability to run and destress. That’s our role in the community–reducing stress through activity.” 2020 marks 40 years of Aerobics First collaborating with and serving the greater Halifax community.

“Providing footwear is a solution, and something that’s pretty basic.”

When a store chooses to be at the forefront of community development, change happens. The complexities of poverty and homelessness were never too big for MacDonald. For years, MacDonald and Cheverie were taking back gently used shoes from customers and putting shoes on the homeless population throughout the province. Providing footwear to the less fortunate seemed like an obvious thing for them to do. Yet, over time, he began to understand some of the bigger issues with those less fortunate.

MacDonald realized the number of people living in poverty who were affected by diabetes. He started doing the math. In 2017, 2,000 people in Nova Scotia had a diabetic ulcer, and 11 percent of them would lose a leg. Losing a leg costs the province between $150,000 and $180,000. Multiplied by 220 people, meant that Nova Scotia was spending approximately 30 million on a health issue he saw as preventable. MacDonald wanted to fit these people perfectly with new shoes. “If anyone needed new shoes, it was these people.”

MacDonald tweaked the Pay it Forward concept, and made it a part of the culture and mindset at Aerobics First. He started giving the option to paying customers at the till to donate to Fit it Forward. Immediately, he was shocked at how much money was coming through from the Halifax community in donations. The greater Halifax and Nova Scotia community started catching on and making Fit it Forward a part of life.

Four years ago, Saucony stepped in–literally. Former Saucony General Manager Brad Mrakava saw an article about #FititForward in the paper and gave MacDonald and Cheverie a phone call. Mrakava sent 800 pairs of brand new boots and shoes from various Wolverine World Wide brands, including Saucony, to the store. “Since then, we’ve had a supply of shoes from Wolverine Worldwide – owner of Saucony. If it wasn’t for Saucony, the store wouldn’t have got the shoes they did.”

“If it wasn’t for Saucony, the store wouldn’t have got the shoes they did.”

MacDonald and Cheverie’s entrepreneurial instincts and community development mindset didn’t stop there. “Now, because we have so many shoes, we’ve linked up with organizations who have front line access to homelessness and poverty in Halifax. We have a shared Google Document where organizations can put initials and shoe sizes in. From that information, I can deliver a shoe directly to the agency.” Aerobics First has even trained employees at non profit organizations to fit shoes correctly.

Aerobics First aims to continue to establish hope in the front lines of the organizations providing hope and security. The store has become the facilitator uplifting organizations from the bottom up. Byrony House, a home for women escaping violence, has a pair of shoes for every size. “Women are literally running out of their house with nothing on. We will put a pair of shoes on them right away.”

Many store owners may view business and social responsibility as two distinct entities. Yet, MacDonald and Cheverie have found harmony in integrating a collaborative and community focused model into the everyday operations of the store. Aerobics First initiatives don’t stop at their shoe outreach program. The store continues to pave the path and support causes that remove barriers for marginalized populations. They currently spearhead the World Litter Run, Youth Running Series, Run for Life, Sparks Fly, Make Cents of Change, Olympics Corner, and Enda Running Shoes organizations..  

“Providing footwear is a solution, and something that’s pretty basic.” MacDonald and his team has made footwear a simple solution to complex community issues such as homelessness and poverty. Aerobics First has positively impacted community development systems and structures in Halifax and greater Nova Scotia. The community has felt this. It’s no wonder the popularity of the store has grown significantly over the last ten years.