A Mexican woman’s dream of opening a gymnastics academy in the U.S. and helping combat childhood obesity came true. (Photo/courtesy of Bertha Antaramian)

How an immigrant’s dream of opening gym for Latino children in L.A. became reality

Bertha Antaramian, owner of Twister Gymnastics in Los Angeles, was a physical education teacher and gymnast in her native country of Mexico before she came to the United States. Twenty years ago, she traveled here with the intention of returning home, but she decided to stay to work at the YMCA.

“My main concern was the Hispanic people in this country. We don’t have many opportunities in sports,” says Antaramian. “I worked for the YMCA for 11 years and when it closed, all those kids were out in the streets.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. A 2011 study from the journal Pediatrics found that Hispanic children between the ages of six and 17 are more likely to be physically inactive. In fact, 22.5 percent of immigrant Hispanic children, 17.2 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic kids with immigrant parents, and 14.5 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic kids with a single immigrant parent are considered sedentary. Among their non-Hispanic white peers, 9.5 percent are considered inactive.

Antaramian, who was undocumented, was determined to create a gym for Latino children, despite the challenges she faced because of her legal status. She says she took her retirement money and started fundraising though talents shows, field trips, and even selling chocolate.

But despite her hard work, Antaramian was still unable to raise enough money for her business. She says she was in need of loans to buy equipment. Each piece, she says, cost at least $5,000. It was during this time that one of the parents referred her to the Opportunity Fund.

Caitlin McShane, marketing and communications director, says Opportunity Fund starts where banks end. “Opportunity Fund began 20 years ago based on the idea that a small amount of money and financial advice can make a lasting change in someone’s life,” says McShane. The nonprofit, regulated by the Treasury Department, aims to provide financial services in underserved communities.

According to McShane, Opportunity Fund relies on a mix of traditional lender criteria. “We look at credit score, but don’t ask for it to be stellar. We also look at financial information, but don’t require a written business plan,” she says .

The organization, McShane says, invests the time in the client and determines their eligibility by looking at four components– cash flow, character, credit, and collateral. The loans range from $2,500 to $100,000 and the median amount is $5,000. “Small amounts make a huge difference,” she says.

Because they have been around for 20 years, McShane says that Opportunity Fund has been able to compile data to demonstrate the success of their programs. She says over 90 percent of the businesses they help survive and grow. Income for business owners also goes up an average of 55 percent.

The loans helps promote entrepreneurship, economic mobility and the American dream in low-income communities. She says that Opportunity Fund’s focus on the client’s character harkens back to the banks of the past. “The ability to know the person and stay connected matters a lot,” McShane says.

Opportunity Fund saw Antaramian’s potential and has provided her with multiple loans over the years. “Her gym is an incredibly valuable community institution. It’s helped to retain three jobs,” she says. “Sixty-four percent of new jobs are created by small businesses. She’s a viable business and is able to provide for herself and her family. She’s also creating jobs and providing a space for kids to exercise.”

Twister Gymnastic has now been open for about 10 years. They offer tiny tots classes, recreational activities, and even form competitive teams that compete nationally. The kids range from three to 18 years old. Antaramian also makes sure that families, 80 percent of which are low income, are able to afford her programs. Customers pay an initial registration fee and then a monthly fee of $50.

“It’s a good place for kids and good for the community. I don’t even advertise because I want people to recommend me,” says Antaramian. “That’s my passion, that’s my life. That’s what I love to do– helping people. Hopefully, I can be useful for them to go and reach their goals.”

Erika L. Sanchez

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor for NBCLatino, The Huffington Post and other publications. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and the 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry prize. You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com

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