RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to move closer to home now where fighting poverty can take many forms. There are the big government programs, like food stamps. And then there are small programs run by private individuals, which can take alternative approaches to improve the lives of the poor. Now to one of those alternative efforts: A group of senior citizens in New York City is using exercise to help reinvigorate their community.

NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn is known for many things - huge public housing projects, extremely high poverty, crime. Last summer, a one-year-old boy there was shot in the head and killed as he sat in a stroller.

But that's one side of life in Brownsville. Down the street, on weekday mornings, is another.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU LOVE ME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Do you love me? Do you love me?

FESSLER: About 40 older women, many of them in sweat pants, T-shirts and knit caps, are dancing their hearts out at a community center - wiggling hips, pumping fists.

SID HUNTER: Push. Push. Push.

FESSLER: These women are stoked. And it's not even noon.

HUNTER: Push. Push.

FESSLER: They've just finished their twice-weekly exercise class and they're rearing to go. Usually, they walk and dance around the neighborhood. But today, it's too cold so they're staying in.

You might ask, what does all this have to do with fighting poverty? Well, a non-profit group called Community Solutions thinks that the way to help places like Brownsville is to get residents to look out for each other, to spot problems early on. And so it started this exercise and walking club, among other things.

Seventy-year-old Linda Beckford says, without it, some of these seniors would be stuck at home and isolated.

LINDA BECKFORD: It makes people want to come out and do more, rather than be afraid. You know, it makes you want to come out and just be a part of things.

HUNTER: Hello, everybody. We - OK, we going to ask everyone, like we always start our program out...

FESSLER: And instructor Sid Howard knows just how far to push the women and the few men who show up from time to time. He's a senior himself, 74 years old, and a coach with New York Road Runners. He's also a bit of tease, which the women love.

HUNTER: How you doing, Annie?

ANNIE: All right.

HUNTER: OK, let's go. Come on, Mildred. Put your arm up, girl. All right, let's go, all the way up.

FESSLER: The class starts slowly. Some of seniors use wheelchairs or walkers. One woman is 97. So everyone sits at first, gripping rubber exercise bands as they raise and lower their arms.

HUNTER: We're going to pull it and we're going to go all the way up. We're going to pull it, one, two, three, four, five...

FESSLER: The seniors say here, they use muscles they haven't used for years and do things they thought they'd never do again.

HUNTER: We want you to touch your toes. If you bring your feet closer, you can do it. Ready?

FESSLER: Which makes them feel stronger, confident, less vulnerable. Delores Stitch, who refuses to give her age - she's known here as the Diva - says these seniors get more respect now from people in the neighborhood.

DELORES STITCH: And they stop in and speak to us. You know?

FESSLER: When you say they, you mean the kids, or?

STITCH: The kids, the young adults, the middle aged, the - I don't know if I should say it.

FESSLER: And, she whispers to me, the drug addicts also talk to them.

Come summer, many of the seniors will also spend time at a fresh produce market down the block, run by local teens. Gwen Grant, who's 65, says despite its bad reputation, Brownsville can be a good place to live.

GWEN GRANT: As seniors, we have to be interested in the kids. Don't just they're say, they're bad, they're troublesome or whatever. We have to give them what we know.

FESSLER: She thinks seniors can learn from the kids as well. Hopefully, she says, everyone benefits. At the very least, the seniors can have some fun.

GRANT: Ah, we got it going on here.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT: It's part of exercise.

(Singing) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Please, Mr. Postman.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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