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Wake Up Call: YMCA Jumpstart Class Is ‘A Real Family’

Updated: Sep 12, 2019


Debbi Dean leads the YMCA Jump Start fitness class in an exercise routine on Feb. 22, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky.

What do a former vice mayor, a New York Times bestselling author, a judge and a sorority house mother have in common?

They all attend the Jump Start group exercise class at the East High YMCA along with approximately 30 other people who show up at the Y at 6 a.m. three days a week to exercise together.

On the morning of Feb. 22, YMCA healthy living director and Jump Start instructor Debbi Dean dropped her stuff off in her office before heading to the basement, where the class is held.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Dean began the class, that room in the basement was not yet built. Instead, she and the inaugural members of the class worked out in the multi-purpose room on the first floor.

Dean had already been teaching group exercise classes for several years when a good friend of hers convinced her to come to the Y to teach this 6 a.m. class.

“So that’s how I got to the Y, and I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere else teaching,” she said. “It’s my home.”

When Dean got down to the basement on this February morning, longtime member of the class Diane Johnson was already there. Dean said Johnson walks from her home before every class meeting and is often the first to arrive.

“This is the best class in the Y,” Johnson said.

The people who trickled in to the bright, energetic room from the dark, cold morning outside took their places around the room, their reflections looking back at them from floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

As an aerobic mix of “Beat It” started playing, Dean took her place at the front of the class to lead the class in 25 minutes of cardio.


Attendees of the YMCA Jump Start fitness class do a round of can-can like exercises on Feb. 22, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Dean said she has two formats for the class. The first, which was the plan for that day, was 25 minutes of cardio, followed by weights, then push-ups and abs.

“It’s high-impact, low-impact aerobics,” she said. “It used to be higher for longer, and the older I get, the lower it gets,” she jokingly added.

The ages of the class members vary widely— as do the heights of the high knees they do.

A few minutes later, the oldest attendee that day walked in, stopping to say hi to a few people before taking her place in the back of the room and jumping right in to some jumping jacks.

Isabel Yates said she often gets there about five minutes late— because sometimes she’s sleeping on her good ear and doesn’t hear her alarm. She is 94 years old.

“I tell you, you have to get up early…” she said. “But it’s lots of fun, and it makes you get started for the day, and that’s why I like it.”

Yates, who is still active in the city, has been attending Jump Start for 10 or 12 years, she said. But before she was the second oldest member of the class, she was vice mayor of Lexington from 1999 to 2002. She said the class has not changed much since she joined— “but it’s gotten bigger and we’ve gotten more united with each other.”

Yates called the class “a real family,” and she said that if she’s not at class one day, everybody calls asking what’s wrong.

“And if you’re sick or something, they call you and come to see you sometimes,” she said.

The oldest member of the class, 96-year-old Virginia Bell, is proof of this. She was absent that day because of a hip injury, and after several members of the class asked how she was doing, one class member said she had plans to visit and take her a meal later that day.

As the cardio workout continued, Dean shouted encouragements from the front of the room, but most people were comfortably in their rhythm. It was clear these people had spent many, many mornings exactly like this.

Two women stepped arm in arm to the beat, while others chatted even as they continued their workout.


Mary Catherine Dorsett dances with the class during the YMCA jump start fitness class on Feb. 22, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Many of them wore matching Jump Start t-shirts that boasted 20 years of a class that brought them “Love, friends, family” and more.

Without breaking stride in the workout, one man— one of the five in attendance that day— began running around the room, bells in one hand and envelopes in the other.

This was Steve Hupman, who is in the commercial real estate business and has attended the class almost since the beginning.

“We got word in the locker room that there was some crazy lady upstairs who was near our age… and so some of us plugged in and just couldn’t get out of it,” he said.

Hupman is a big part of the Y’s scholarship campaign, which raises money to support the YMCA’s pledge to never turn anyone away.

“It reaches deep into our community, and helps pull up some people that need the help, so those of us who have been, I’m going to say, overly blessed, choose to share in that fashion.”

The bells were Hupman’s way of making campaign-giving fun— as members of the class give, Hupman hands out their pledge cards, which he decorates with stickers.

“We just celebrate each individual giver, and they really like that, I think,” he said. “They love it,” Dean said.

Every year, Hupman matches in donations what the class pledges. Last year, the Jump Start class alone raised $40,000. The East High YMCA’s overall goal this year is about $300,000, which is about half the goal of all the Y’s across the state.


Steve Hupman kisses Isabel Yates on the cheek while holding envelopes and ringing bells celebrating the class members giving to the YMCA’s scholarship fund during the YMCA Jump Start fitness class on Feb. 22, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky.

“This one alone is one of the smallest ones, and we raise the most,” Dean said.

After the music ended and the group had completed its 25 minutes of cardio, the exercisers took a quick break before starting their weight and ab exercises.

It was at this point that Yates took her leave— she said she normally stayed for that part but had to get to her Friday hair appointment.

The last half hour of the class passed by in a more subdued fashion— at least as far as the music was concerned.

As the class ended, people filed out of the workout room— passing by the bulletin board that Dean said she sets up differently every month. This month’s question was “What do you love about the Y?” and Post-It notes in tones of red and pink displayed people’s answers. Many mentioned the Jump Start class— like the one that read “Debbi Dean and my 6am family xoxo.”

Several of the class’s members didn’t part for long, though, as their Friday tradition is to meet at Third Street Stuff & Coffee after their workout. Dean said as many as 15 sometimes spend part of their Friday morning at Third Street, where owner Pat Gerhard reserves a couple of tables just for them.

The coffee dates have been happening for somewhere between 12 and 15 years, Dean said, though they weren’t always at Third Street.

This was only Jill Malusky’s second time at a post-workout Third Street meeting, since she normally has to go straight from the Y to her job at the Lexington Public Library.

Malusky has only been attending Jump Start since August, and she said she had “no idea what I was walking into” the first time.

“I walked in and I was like, ‘Woah, what’s going on?’” she said. “I think they were worried that I wouldn’t stay or come back, and everyone was so friendly and wonderful and just grabbed me and pulled me in, and I was like I don’t want to leave. I love this.”

As they sipped their coffee, side conversations died down and everyone gathered around for Hupman to read each person’s horoscope.


“No make up,” someone said as he prepared to read.

This is a reference to a former member of the class— a Japanese man who would always implore Hupman not to make up anyone’s horoscope.

Finishing up their coffee and preparing to leave, class members hugged and said goodbye.

When each member first stepped foot into the Jump Start class, the real estate agent, judge, author and so many more may have had little in common— though they do boast “a really impressive resume,” as Mulasky put it.

But you don’t realize that when you’re working out together, Mulasky said; as Hupman said, “sweating is the great equalizer.”

After years and years of sweating together, this diverse group of people considers themselves to be a family, or a mini community.

And as they each left Third Street to do the next thing on their Friday schedules, they all had one thing in common.

In less than 72 hours, they’d be back in the Y basement, working out together.


Photos by Arden Barnes

Story Written by Bailey Vandiver