How weightlifting uplifts underprivileged kids

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PEP Project Weightlifting is an after-school weightlifting training program for underprivileged kids. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The sound of a weightlifting gym is quite unique. It’s a rhythm. This particular one is no different, beginning with a sudden thud as feet hit the mat with conscious intent. A few counts later, the violent sound of metal weights hitting the ground is heard, bouncing on rubber and slowly dying down to a rattle. As I observe this, Richard “Pep” Agosto stands beside me, watching the athletes intently. We’re outside his house, in his open-air gym, where he’s training a group of athletes — kids from his neighborhood who, roughly four years ago, were lifting scrap metal and plastic bottles instead of barbells.

A member of the national weightlifting team for almost 17 years — which he gracefully exited in 2014 — Agosto was a natural talent. He found weightlifting in his hometown of Bohol, where he stumbled into the sport through another weightlifting Olympian, Samuel Alegada. After his first week of training, he discovered that the team was leaving for a competition and Agosto wanted in.

Nagkataon na ‘yung katimbang ko, hindi pinayagan ng parents niya. Hindi na ‘ko nagpaalam sa parents ko. Finorge ko ‘yung pirma nila tapos umalis na ako,” he tells me with a coy smile. This small lie would eventually land him a slot in the national team, a college scholarship, and a bronze medal in weightlifting in the 2007 and 2011 SEA Games.

“Personal goal naming mag-asawa magkaroon ng gym sa bahay, maliit lang, for personal use,” he explains. This would change, however, after seeing children scavenging in a nearby dumpsite. He noticed their strength and endurance, working long hours after school to collect used bottles and scrap metal, and considered teaching them weightlifting. And so, PEP Project Weightlifting was born.

IMG_7659.jpeg Former national team weightlifter Richard “Pep” Agosto started PEP Project Weightlifting after noticing children scavenging in a nearby dumpsite, working long hours after school to collect used bottles and scrap metal. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

He encouraged them to learn his sport with a small bribe: free snacks after lessons. “Maraming bata noong una pero after nila mag-snacks, tumatakas ‘yung iba,” he tells me with a laugh. It’s a reality he accepted.

His first batch of athletes showed huge potential. Three months into their training, Agosto enrolled the group in Batang Pinoy, the national sports competition for athletes under 15 years old, to test the waters. “Nung tinitingnan ko ‘yung mga record ng Luzon qualifying sabi ko, ‘Mananalo kami.'

His kids, he says, were already lifting the record weights as their warm up during that time. I would’ve said he was boasting until I saw one of his students, Ericka de Hitta, an 18-year-old girl with a tiny frame, easily and consistently lift 45 kilos the entire morning. Three months and they were beating former medalists in the regional qualifiers. Three months and they were able to grab a bronze medal in the nationals.

For some of the kids that stayed, time spent training meant time away from scavenging, which meant less money earned for their allowance or for their family. It was a challenge for Agosto to convince the parents of some of these children to let them continue training. He eventually talked to the parents himself. “Ang sabi ko, ‘Isa lang ang maitutulong ko sa inyo, na pagkatapos ng training, hindi uuwing gutom ang mga anak ninyo.’” It was a compromise for a possible long term solution, one that would pay off eventually.

IMG_7626.jpeg Eighteen-year-old Ericka de Hitta, who began lifting under PEP Project three years ago, has had the opportunity to join competitions against members of the national team, where she once bagged second place. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Ericka de Hitta, began lifting under PEP Project three years ago. She was looking for her sister after scavenging and found her training in Agosto’s gym. While reluctant at first, she picked up the sport and hasn’t stopped since. She recounts a competition in Pangasinan two years back, with her going head to head against someone from the national team.

Labanan po kami ng buhat,” says de Hitta. “Nakaka-pressure pero nakaka-excite din po kasi national team ‘yung katapat mo. Nag-silver po ako dun. Sobrang saya po.”

Despite settling for second, she considers this her special moment, facing off with someone from the national team and going the distance. After our little talk, her coach tells me that she might make the national team this year.

Agosto is currently enlisted in the Philippine Air Force, his day job. After the shock win in 2014, he also became the regional coach of the national team, in charge of promoting weightlifting at the grassroots level. However, a year into his project, the cost of running the gym had started to grow. His athletes trained six times a week, he was providing training, personal equipment, and meals to the children, and he had three kids of his own. A friend suggested that he teach weightlifting in CrossFit classes, which became extremely beneficial for the gym. He’d use the extra income for the kids and, slowly, the CrossFit community would get involved in helping with the kids as well. From Air Force duties, to grassroots promotion, to CrossFit classes, and PEP project, Agosto is a man who can carry a lot on his shoulders.

IMG_7792.jpeg A beneficiary of a scholarship himself, Coach Pep hopes his project can one day provide his kids with the same opportunity. “Makahanap kami ng scholarship para sa mga bata. Hindi imposible dahil nangyari din sa akin.” Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

CrossFit also became the kids’ source of confidence. Agosto would sometimes bring his athletes along in his CrossFit classes to interact with other people. “Kahit ba mangangalakal tayo, basta maayos ang pag-presenta natin sa ibang tao, ‘yun ang makikita nila sa atin,” he shares with me.

After four years, he’s given these kids a chance to fight back. It’s hard to carry intangible burdens like fear, worry, or hopelessness, but with weightlifting, they know exactly what they’re up against. And through him, these kids have started to learn discipline, dedication, and hard work — tools needed to properly lift their burdens, both inside and outside the gym.

Asked what’s next, Agosto replies with a simple answer, “Makahanap kami ng scholarship para sa mga bata. Hindi imposible dahil nangyari din sa akin.” A beneficiary of a scholarship himself, Agosto was a scholar in De La Salle University where he played track and field, and weightlifting. “Malaking opportunity ‘yung binigay ng weightlifting sa akin,” he explains. Now, he’s paying it forward. His story is a path his students can echo. It's a rhythm, one that continues to reverberate in coach Pep’s tiny backyard gym.

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For more information, visit PEP Project Weightlifting on Facebook.