- Sarah Priestap
- Erin Donahue, Informal fitness instructor, East Thetford
As her 8 a.m. outdoor exercise group was limbering up, Erin Donahue gave a sleepy newcomer the brief lowdown. "All the exercises are written down there," she said, pointing to a cardboard sheet in the grass scrawled with purple marker. "Do as much as you're comfortable with," she continued, smiling and bouncing like a spring from foot to foot. "And at any point, you can stop and just dance."
As if on cue, Robin Osborne, clad in purple workout clothes, gave a fluttering little shimmy to the strains of "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" emanating from a Bluetooth speaker.
"I hope you like Barry White!" Donahue chirped before turning to lead the small class — Osborne, Stephanie Carney, three dogs and an out-of-shape reporter — on a light warm-up jog along a mown path through a scenic grassy field at Osborne's East Thetford home. At the end of a lap and some informal, huffing small talk, we returned to our small circle of yoga mats and hand weights in the yard. As we prepared to get into our first set of lunges, Osborne offered: "This class saved my life."
Later, Osborne, a psychologist, clarified that she didn't mean that literally. But for her and many others in the White River Junction area over the last 15 months, Donahue's informal, pandemic-era exercise classes have at the very least been a lifeline.
"Erin always puts a hand out to anyone that needs help," class regular Amanda DeRoy said in a phone interview.
When COVID-19 closed Vermont gyms in March 2020, Donahue and the other members of the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction were left out in the cold. Thanks to Donahue, that's where they stayed, and happily so.
"We were all terrified about this pandemic," Donahue recalled, "but I knew we had to keep working out."
Like Osborne, Donahue is a therapist. "We both knew how important moving is to mental health and de-stressing — and seeing people and fighting isolation," Donahue said. "So, this class did all three."
With the fitness center's blessing, Donahue, who had taken CrossFit classes but had no experience leading them, organized informal morning sessions in the UVAC parking lot on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m.
"They were completely supportive, which I was so grateful for," Donahue said of the fitness center.
"They loaned us some of their stuff," Osborne added.
Donahue's first classes drew six people. As word got out, that number grew to 20 to 25 regulars per class. The exercisers represented a range of ages, genders and professions, from out-of-work restaurant staff to published authors to erstwhile Dartmouth College professors and at least one famous chef. "It was a cool cross section of the Upper Valley," Donahue said.
"We would go down in all weather, unless it was below about 20 degrees," Osborne recalled. "Especially in the beginning of the pandemic, it just felt good to have somewhere to go."
"So no one would get bored," Donahue said, she drew up new circuits for every class, writing them on the backs of cardboard boxes from mail-order companies such as Chewy, the pet supply company. And she made fresh playlists on Spotify.
When UVAC reopened along with other Vermont gyms on July 1, 2020, Donahue moved the classes to Osborne's yard rather than continue in the center's parking lot.
"It didn't feel ethical, and I wanted people to use their memberships and go to the gym if they felt safe enough," Donahue explained.
In the following months, attendance dipped to a smaller core group that has continued meeting three days a week at Osborne's home — save for a stretch on Zoom in January when it got too cold.
"I remember at least once we were out here wearing microspikes," Osborne said.
Added Carney, a retired elementary school teacher and former yoga instructor, "We're the die-hards."