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Memphis may be best known as the birthplace of soul music, where artists including Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes went to cut records, but it is also home to the world’s first non-profit climbing gym on a large scale. Memphis Rox aims to open up climbing to a more diverse audience and to build confidence among disadvantaged young people both mentally and physically.
“Titles don’t matter in climbing – heart matters,” says Sarah Grai, director of non-profit organisation One Family Memphis, the gym’s umbrella organisation. “You will see groups huddled throughout the gym, discussing routes and strategies, and high-wealth individuals climbing next to teenagers from the neighbourhood. Climbing, by its nature, brings people together.”
The idea began with film director Tom Shadyac, whose blockbuster movies include Ace Ventura and The Nutty Professor. After a serious mountain bike accident in 2007, Shadyac decided to change the course of his life, steering away from Hollywood to Memphis, Tennessee, where he began teaching at the university and LeMoyne-Owen College in the neighbourhood of Soulsville. Wanting to do more for the area, Shadyac purchased a failed retail development that sat opposite the historically black liberal arts college, and in 2018 transformed it into a state-of-the-art climbing gym.
Stretching across 80,000sq ft, the gym is clad in vibrant murals, while climbing holds of all shapes, sizes and colours dot the inner walls. But what makes Memphis Rox different is its inclusive approach. No one is turned away; those who can’t afford the membership simply pay what they can, and for those who can’t pay at all, five hours of volunteering a month is equivalent to a monthly membership. Volunteers can lend a hand in a number of ways, from taking part in neighbourhood clean-up events to helping in the gym’s Educational Food Garden and the in-house, pay-what-you-can café Juice Almighty – a nod to Bruce Almighty – which provides healthy meals and snacks. The aim is to help diversify a climbing community dominated by white males: 77 per cent of Memphis Rox staff are people of colour.
But it isn’t just about climbing. “Our members are not just joining a gym – they are joining a revolution that is set out to inspire and change climbing culture while bringing opportunities to our local community,” says Grai. Memphis Rox employs people from the neighbourhood whenever possible, and of the roughly 40 staff, over half live in Soulsville, an under-resourced area that faces high rates of crime and unemployment. Grai says that staff act as local advocates, enriching understanding of the town’s needs. “By investing directly in the neighbourhood, we have gained its trust. As Tom Shadyac says: ‘We are not here to fix the community. We are here to be in the community.’”
Post-Covid, Memphis Rox hopes to re-launch some of its community programmes and embark on new ones, including partnering with Catalyst Climbing – a climbing coaching organisation in London – which will offer free workshops in October.
“The more fashionable the sport becomes, the more climbers across the world, and this means more potential donors and kind people serving their communities,” says Jon Hawk, director of operations. “I would love to see more climbing centres reach out to their local non-profits to create group events at no cost, exposing climbing to a group of folks that would never have had access and would never have met otherwise.”
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