How NorCal CrossFit Built Two Schools & Hope in Kenya

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NorCal CrossFit Members in Kenya

NorCal CrossFit Members in Kenya (Credit: Jason Khalipa)

Months before registration for the 2013 CrossFit Games Open started, the coaches and community at NorCal CrossFit focused its collective attention on the other side of the world by participating in CrossFit’s Hope for Kenya initiative.

The support of the NorCal CrossFit community, its coaches, and a quiet, extraordinary donation by one of its long-time members resulted in hope being delivered to the rural region surrounding Mombasa, Kenya in the form of two new schools that will have a lasting effect on thousands of children living in the community on the eastern coast of Africa.

NorCal CrossFit spans four gyms and two corporate locations in the Peninsula and Silicon Valley regions of  the San Francisco Bay Area. In any given class, it’s not uncommon to find more than a few members who work at some of the world’s leading technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple.

The community is also well-known for being founded by 2008 CrossFit Games champion Jason Khalipa, who was an instrumental part of getting the entire community behind CrossFit HQ’s non-profit Hope for Kenya initiative, which focuses on building schools and water cisterns in Kenya.

Laura Bradrick, one of NorCal CrossFit’s coaches who works with CrossFit HQ on its Hope initiatives, brought her CrossFit worlds together for the cause.

“Because of my love for NorCal’s community and every single member of this gym, I wanted to have a fundraiser at NorCal to help bring our community together for an amazing cause. Jason was 100 percent on-board and really helped to make this whole thing happen,” said Bradrick.

NorCal CrossFit held its own competition dedicated to the cause in December 2012 and also became one of the many CrossFit gyms around the world that performed the initiative’s 12 minute AMRAP workout of 50 squats, 30 push-ups, and 15 pull-ups on Februrary 16, 2013. In total, the NorCal CrossFit community raised over $30,000 for Kenya, exceeding its goal of $28,000, and raised enough to build two schools.

In addition to raising money, the event brought the close-knit NorCal CrossFit community even closer together. Bradrick said, “I was amazed, but not surprised at all, by the amazing people who came out to compete and show their love, not only for CrossFit, but also for the community. The event was such a blast, and that is truly because of all of the people who came out to make it happen.”

She added, “Nothing makes me happier than seeing the community come together.”

NorCal CrossFit Members in Kenya

Image (Credit: Jason Khalipa)

While the event was being planned, Dheeraj Sanka, one of NorCal’s long-time members and a founding member of NorCal’s Mountain View location, was quietly asking coaches and staff how he might be able to contribute to the Kenya initiative.

Sanka started his CrossFit journey in November 2009 at Ann Arbor, Michigan’s HyperFit USA, home of 2012 CrossFit Games runner-up Julie Foucher.

Like many, Sanka was once a globo-gym attendee who occasionally worked on his beach muscles in college. He found that the camaraderie and coaching of CrossFit kept him coming back. Additionally, he said, “It has taught me a lot of life lessons. Never quit, always be willing to work on improving yourself, remember the fact that it’s okay to fail as long as you keep getting up.”

Since starting CrossFit four years ago, Sanka describes CrossFit as, “It is my temple in a way – a place where I come to get away from everything for a bit. It’s a place where I have made some great friends and met some great people. CrossFit has inspired me over and over again.”

“CrossFit, like life, has ups and downs. It has taught me to put others ahead of me – help others and root for their PRs over mine. It is a way of life for me at this point and so much more than a fitness program.”

Sanka grew up in India and moved to the United States at the age of 18 to attend the University of Michigan. After what CrossFit brought to his new life, how did he decide to give back to his community at NorCal CrossFit, the greater CrossFit community, and ultimately, the people of Kenya?

He donated $14,000 to NorCal CrossFit’s Hope for Kenya fundraiser, enough to build a second school. Amazingly, he quietly made the donation and didn’t even mention it to most of his close friends at the gym. Apart from being listed on the donation leaderboard for Hope for Kenya, Sanka’s selfless donation came purely from a desire to get involved and give back.

“I was talking to a good friend of mine from my college days and explaining why CrossFit was more than just a fitness program. I used Hope For Kenya as an example. At around the same time, I was also talking to him about my desire to start giving back. He came up with the suggestion that I should donate to build a school out in Kenya and dedicate it to my parents,” said Sanka, who credits his father and mother, Ramesh and Padmaja Sanka, who live in India, for his work ethic and desire to get involved with community projects.

“They have been incredibly supportive of everything I have done so far. They have provided me with an amazing platform to build on. They taught me all the right life lessons and pushed me to be better than I thought I could be. I figured it would be a nice gesture to dedicate a school to them,” Sanka said of his parents.

NorCal CrossFit Members in Kenya

Image (Credit: Jason Khalipa)

With his donation, Sanka helped NorCal CrossFit surpass its fundraising goals. While building was underway at the first school when the NorCal staff went out to Kenya in January, the second school dedicated to Sanka’s parents, officially breaks ground this Spring 

“I was seriously floored when I heard from Dheeraj and about his amazingly generous donation to the people of Kenya. To be honest, I got pretty emotional knowing that a member of our community was willing to make such a profound donation. It solidified my belief that there are no better people than those that the CrossFit community brings together,” said Bradrick.

Bradrick continued, “People who hardly know each other can come together to change lives and make a better world. It goes so far beyond fitness.”

Khalipa, who traveled to Kenya as part of the initiative, said of Sanka’s donation, “Dheeraj stepped up and helped in a big way. I personally met the people that his contribution touched. They were extremely appreciative.” Khalipa is also proud to say that “All the money that was raised, every single dime, went straight to Kenya,” as the community’s donations did not fund the coaches’ travel expenses for their 20-hour flight to Africa.

Among the coaches who joined Khalipa on the trip was Alex Rollin, who competed at the NorCal Regionals for the past two years and had coached Sanka since NorCal CrossFit’s Mountain View location opened. When Sanka found out that Rollin would be joining Khalipa on the trip, it made his decision to donate to the cause even easier.

“I trust both those guys completely. Once I found out they’d be going to Kenya to actually check in on the schools, it was a no-brainer to me,” said Sanka.

Seeing the project from all sides, Khalipa said of the greater NorCal CrossFit community, “It was our community coming together and getting behind something that was so awesome to watch. The competition, the trip out there, the schools we built – this was all a by-product of our community. We couldn’t be more proud.”

When asked about what the NorCal CrossFit and greater CrossFit community means to him, Sanka, who holds four different CrossFit certifications and judged at the 2011 NorCal Regionals, summed it up by saying, “I am 10,000 miles from home and NorCal [CrossFit] feels like a home away from home for me.”

Tim Sohn, one of the few NorCal CrossFit members aware of Sanka’s donation, said, “What I enjoy most about the CrossFit community are the friendships and good-natured competition. Dheeraj exemplifies both of these qualities. He’s the first to greet you when you walk into the gym and will keep you going in those moments when you doubt your ability. All of Dheeraj’s effort behind CrossFit for Kenya shows his commitment to see change both here and across the world.”

What’s next for NorCal CrossFit and Sanka? For NorCal CrossFit, where coaches Pat Barber, Jason Khalipa, and Miranda Oldroyd are all in position to qualify for the 2013 NorCal Regionals, the gym has promised to continue supporting Kenya through its community.

For Sanka, he said, “This was a good first step. I know that there is a lot of work to be done and I plan on continuing down this path.” Since making his donation, he has gotten involved with Global Minimum, an organization focused on empowering and providing mentorship for the youth of countries like Kenya, Sierra Leone, and South Africa to solve problems they face in their societies. He is currently building an online system for them to manage the hundreds of applications they receive every year.

Regarding the school in Kenya that is currently being built in his parents’ names, Sanka admitted, “I am thrilled to show it to my parents.”

NorCal CrossFit’s support for Hope for Kenya proved what many CrossFitters already know – being part of CrossFit is often more than just being a member of a gym. It can mean that you’re part of a community and as witnessed here, amazing things can happen when a united community rallies behind a single cause, even bringing good to those living on the other side of the world.

“If you have an affiliate and you have one hundred members… if one hundred of those members have a barbeque, drink some beer, throw down some workouts, and each one pays $100 bucks… There’s $10,000 you can put towards a cause… You’re almost at a school! That’s mind-boggling to me,” Khalipa said in an interview for Hope for Kenya. “One school can benefit so many children it’s unbelievable,” he added.

“As our affiliates grow and as businesses become more successful… I think we have a duty to take our amazing CrossFit community and help other people,” Khalipa said of the greater CrossFit community.

To date, CrossFit HQ’s Hope for Kenya initiative is approaching $300,000 raised for the people of Kenya, thanks to the generous donations of the extended CrossFit community around the world.

Dave Chung

Dave Chung

Dave is an active member of the fitness and CrossFit community in Northern and Southern California at NorCal CrossFit and Paradiso CrossFit. With a love for pop culture, Dave has written for Rotten Tomatoes, AmericanIdol.com, Google, Billboard, and is one of Examiner.com's top health and fitness writers. When he's not doing CrossFit or writing about CrossFit, he can be found making a mess in the kitchen or attempting to max height box jump onto various objects while wearing his work clothes.
Dave Chung