Overweight, out of work and in what she describes as a “very bad place”, a then 19-year-old Chelcie Vera Cookson was less than enthusiastic about being sent along to a WINZ-sponsored army-led boot camp.
But now, five years after graduating, the personal trainer from Auckland is motivating others to get stuck into healthy living – even making headlines for offering to buy a homeless man a gym membership.
It’s been a tough road for Chelcie, who spent years in an abusive relationship and whose dad left her mother when she was 13, pushing her into the role as “second mum” to her younger sister. And it’s not been made any easier by the backlash she has received from a video where she revealed she wants to take a homeless man named Steven to her gym.
“I’ve been working with the homeless, doing little things, for years,” she explains. “It just drives me crazy that people can walk past another person and not help. I posted the video as a way of raising awareness. You can support someone and do that in different ways.
“People have said he needs food and shelter, not the gym. Those things might make a difference day to day, but for me, it’s about giving my time to give someone else a second chance. I don’t even like the word ‘homeless’. Your house or where you sleep doesn’t define you.
“Providing shelter is often just about wanting to get the problem out of the way for a while. It’s a bigger issue and there’s a lot of people who don’t want to know.”
But for every critic, there has been a supporter, with one mum moved to donate $100 towards Steven’s membership. Another, who was going to sell his furniture before moving houses, has decided instead to give it away.
On the morning we talk to Chelcie, she’s preparing to take Steven, 46, and her latest charge – his 48-year-old best mate B, as he likes to be known – for breakfast and then to the hairdresser for a “sharp-looking” cut before picking up some gym kit.
“They both say they like being homeless because there’s a sense of community and they fit in,” tells Chelcie. “But I’ve talked to them about being role models for others like them by getting fit, looking after their bodies and contributing to society. They can encourage each other to do it. Instead of hanging out on the street, they’ll be hanging out at the gym – and if that can inspire others, then great.”
Chelcie’s own inspiration was a six-week boot camp, a Limited Service Volunteer course run by the Defence Force for Work and Income NZ. Before then, she was near rock bottom. She’d been a “chubby little kid” brought up in Pakuranga on a diet of cereal and bread. At 13, around the time her father left, she started dieting. “I did that all through my teenage years.”
She attended Macleans and Pakuranga Colleges but dropped out at 16. “I couldn’t wait to leave school,” she confesses. “I was always quite independent and determined to go my own way, but I suffered depression and I was in an abusive relationship for quite a few years.”
Then came the boot camp, where participants had to write down their goals and dreams. Chelcie remembers penning the words “personal trainer” and “cruise ship worker”.
“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” she tells. “It wasn’t until I’d become a personal trainer and was giving talks on detox and wellness to groups of Americans on
a cruise ship that I realised I’d actually fulfilled those early goals.”
She made friends with a family from New Orleans on one cruise and was invited to stay with them. “I lived with them for a couple of months down near a swamp, where there were alligators and the locals ate squirrels. It was a crazy, cool time, but it also showed how strangers can become your best friends.”
Back in Auckland, Chelcie’s little sister, who also left school at 16, is now a dental assistant. Chelcie is immensely proud of her, as she is of her mum, who has finally “found the love of her life”.
Chelcie says, “It took her until 46 to find that. Our family has definitely been through a lot, but it sort of shows that no dream is too big.”
Words: Julie Jacobson