“We want to be a model for the rest of the nation”

FLINT, Michigan -- Lauren Holaly-Zembo took over as the CEO of the Crim Fitness Foundation on September 1, but she’s no stranger to the organization. She has worked for the Crim since 2008, in a variety of community-facing roles, including the relaunch of the Flint Community Education Initiative five years ago, and its continued expansion.


Holaly-Zembo talked with Flintside about her new role, the challenges of leading a community organization that provides vital services during a pandemic, and what makes Flint’s running and walking community special.


Flintside: You’ve been with the Crim as it has transformed over the years, but right now in the midst of COVID, what has it been like moving into this role with races moved virtual, education programs shifted, basically everything you do had to be dramatically altered really quickly?


Lauren Holaly-Zembo: “It has definitely been an interesting time moving into this role now. It’s not how I planned it, but the great thing about the Crim as an organization is being flexible and adaptive to changing community conditions. That philosophy has helped us during the pandemic. We quickly shifted our community education and mindfulness programs, and even the races to virtual formats. We’ve been intentional about trying to engage with the people we serve. We put together 4,000 care packages through community education, we hand-delivered them, we made sure to virtually check in with people. And we made sure the mindfulness tools were accessible -- during the pandemic, mindfulness is more needed than ever. We’ve really tried to shift to still be of service in whatever way we can. The team is dynamic and we can always move.”


Flintside: People still probably think of races when they think of the Crim, but the mission of the organization has changed so quickly and dramatically in recent years. What has it been like to be a part of the organization as it has become a really core partner to so many different organizations in the community?


Lauren Holaly-Zembo: “It has been so exciting. I personally get really excited about building initiatives and using creativity to come up with solutions to community needs. I started here in 2008 and at the time, we had around 10 employees. Now, we have around 50. Our board and previous CEO (Gerry Myers) were really visionary in seeing the races as a great foundation and celebration of community health, but recognizing that there was so much more we could do for the community, including promoting physical activity, nutrition, mindfulness, and mental health. You can’t tell people to run or eat healthy if we don’t have environments to do it. We even look at city design and policies now to help create that environment. It has all happened so fast since 2005, and now we are looking to continue to sustain and be of service.”


Flintside: Just from a running/walking standpoint, how happy did it make you to see people all over the city still doing their own versions of training programs on traditional nights and using running and walking as a way to still safely check in on neighbors and socialize in the community in small groups during the pandemic?


Lauren Holaly-Zembo: “It was really reaffirming that there’s a strong running and walking culture in Flint and Genesee County. This was our first time ever doing a virtual race, and we didn’t know what to expect, but we had over 3,500 participants -- people from all over the world! We've even now opened it up to people from Flint who have moved other places but still supported us. We loved seeing all the social media about how people were doing their virtual Crim. I did “The Bobby” this year -- it is one of the only years I could do every distance, and I had a lot of fun. The race helps supplement some of our other programs, so it meant a lot to us as an organization to have the community really stand by us in a difficult year.”


Flintside: What are some of the initiatives you’ve worked on that you're most proud of, and what are some of your goals to continue to grow or add programs in the future?


Lauren Holaly-Zembo: “I’m proud of all the work we do. When I first started, I served as the Active Living Coordinator, so I helped build with that with the SAGE (Safe and Active Genesee for Everyone) coalition. It holds a dear place in my heart that they continue to do impactful work with neighborhoods and residents. I relaunched community education, so I’m extremely proud of that and humbled the Crim was selected to take a program created in 1935 by C.S. Mott and Frank Manley and reimagine it. Now we are in all Flint Schools, and International Academy of Flint and Flint Cultural Center Academy. Our community schools directors are the glue in schools that hold everything together and provide amazing opportunities for students, families, and even neighborhood residents that don’t even have a child in the school but need our services. I just love to build new things and be creative.


“I’m excited about our mindfulness work. We have seen promising results that it has had for students on school work and behavior, and we’re trying to take it to a city-wide level. We are on the cutting edge of that and far ahead of most cities -- we want to be a model for the rest of the nation.


“We’re continuing to build the community education initiative, and relaunching citywide youth sports with the city of Flint and Flint ReCAST. There is such a rich history of sports and so many great athletes from Flint, so it’s very exciting to have the Crim be a part of citywide sports. We’re just going to continue to be of service to the Flint community and beyond. We take pride in being innovative, and we have fun and have a great staff who is passionate about their work.”


Flintside: Here’s an open-ended one: What does the Crim mean to Flint?

Lauren Holaly-Zembo: “The Crim has always been a positive, hopeful, inspirational organization. As a staff, whenever you tell someone in Flint you work for the Crim, you hear, 'I love the Crim' or 'I've done the Crim before.' The race has always served as the celebration of best of what Flint has to offer -- you’re winding through the historic neighborhoods. It is like no other race I've been a part of with so many people lining the course and supporting the runners and walkers. Everyone from elite athletes from around the world to your next door neighbor is together on the same course. That foundation got us to where we are today.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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