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Feed Our Fighters, Nourish Our ‘Ohana

Hawaii Foodbank Volunteer Cari Nishimura-Burnett

Despite being idled, UFC Gym in Waikele exercises their support for those in need during the pandemic.

Every January, gyms across the country begin to swell with crowds of new members – all eager to make good on their New Year’s resolutions. For gym owners, there’s no denying the financial importance of the first quarter of the year. Many can rest assured knowing they’re likely to see a bump in membership and attendance. Truly, it’s an annual highlight in the fitness industry.

In Hawaii, the beginning of 2020 was off to another good start.

“We were all gearing up for our biggest turn of the year. You got to think — the first quarter of the year is the most important time for anybody in the fitness industry. That sets the tone for the rest of the year. For our location, too, we were having fantastic months in January and February, and we were on track to kill it in March,” describes Cari Nishimura-Burnett, general manager at UFC Gym in Waikele.

“Then, everything changed.”

On March 23, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a stay-at-home order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Two days later, the entire state of Hawaii shut down. Tourism shuttered. Businesses and schools were closed. And tens of thousands began to lose their jobs.

“You know, it was a lot of uncertainty at that time because no one really knew much about the virus,” remembers Cari. “They said, ‘Oh, it’ll be maybe two weeks, and we’ll evaluate and see how it goes.’ Then two weeks turned into a month. Then two months. Three months.”

The pandemic began to disrupt life for nearly every individual and business in Hawaii. For fitness professionals like Cari, COVID-19 was quickly proving to be the biggest disruption the industry had ever faced. The personal ramifications, though, made matters even worse.

“In my 23 years in fitness, it was the most emotional time I have ever experienced in the industry. And, not because I was experiencing the financial hardships,” Cari looks back. “My poor employees … We had to lay people off. That was the most heartbreaking thing we ever had to do. Just to see my employees – those are my friends and my family – go through that. It messed with a lot of us.”

Hawaii Foodbank Volunteers from UFC Gym

"We had to lay people off. That was the most heartbreaking thing we ever had to do. Just to see my employees – those are my friends and my family – go through that. It messed with a lot of us."

— Cari Nishimura-Burnett, general manager at UFC Gym

Friends and family are what initially drew Cari to UFC Gym when it opened in 2014. Prior to that, the former soccer player from Maui moved to O‘ahu to study medicine at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. It was there that her personal fitness journey began, and she made the decision to switch focus from med school to exploring exercise as preventative medicine – all with the intent of helping others.

“I decided I wanted to help people prior to getting all the aches and pains and health problems. From there, I took the leap of faith and got certified in personal training and nutrition. I got hired and had a successful career at another gym for 16 years, and then one of my close friends came knocking on my door to get me over to UFC Gym,” recalls Cari. “It was a great family opportunity because I saw they offer a lot of programs and opportunities for kids, and that was more in line with what I envisioned fitness should be: family-oriented”

Cari flourished in her role as general manager at UFC Gym, and her sense of family laid the foundation for her business model. It’s not uncommon to see staff or gym members over at her house, sharing a meal or celebrating the holidays. 

Ultimately, her nurturing nature would also lift the gym through the hardships of the pandemic.

Hawaii Foodbank Volunteer Cari Nishimura-Burnett
Hawaii Foodbank Volunteers from UFC Gym
Photo by Bryce Geronimo

“That’s the way I run my gym. It is a family. We’re in this together,” says Cari. “I told the guys, I said, ‘Look – with this extra time on our hands – when are we going to have another opportunity like this to give back to the community that gives so much to us? If I leave anything when I leave this earth, I want to know I was able to help you guys understand what community service is and what it means to give back.’ Because, that’s the basis of humanity: being kind to others. It’s a core value of our gym.”

This sentiment set in motion the gym’s Feed Our Fighters program, an initiative that raised funds to purchase meals from restaurants and deliver them directly to healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. It was a way for the gym to support local businesses struggling to survive while also honoring the doctors, nurses and other essential “fighters” battling COVID-19.

“Through Feed Our Fighters, we were able to see an immediate impact from buying food from local restaurants and directly taking it to the hospitals. And we thought, ‘You know, food is the one thing that everybody absolutely needs,’” asserts Cari. “So, we used this opportunity to get into other avenues of giving back, and that’s how we got involved with Hawaii Foodbank.”

As stay-at-home orders extended through May, Hawaii Foodbank announced the “Food for Hawaii’s ‘Ohana” initiative at the end of April. In partnership with the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii Community Foundation, Bank of Hawaii Foundation and other local stakeholders – the collaborative effort deployed a total of 11 large-scale food distributions at various locations across O‘ahu. The first distribution took place April 30 at Waipi‘o Soccer Complex. When Hawaii Foodbank put out the call for healthy volunteers to pack and distribute food to those in need, Cari and her crew were among the first to sign up.

“When you saw how big the pandemic was turning out and how much need there was – it was a no brainer. We wanted to volunteer with Hawaii Foodbank,” says Cari. “To us, it really wasn’t anything big. We had the time, and we felt we should be doing it.”

That day, Cari and her team worked tirelessly from sunrise to sunset, but the arduous labor is not what stands out.

Hawaii Foodbank Volunteer Cari Nishimura-Burnett

Cari reflects, “I’ll never forget the appreciation from the people that were coming through. We saw a side of the community that we don’t normally get to see. It really made everybody more human. Then, when you saw someone you actually know – gym members or friends that you haven’t seen for a long time – going through the lines … That was when it really hit home and affected me the most.”

With a team of less than 20, UFC Gym continued to volunteer at the remainder of the “Food for Hawaii’s ‘Ohana” distributions. After these concluded in June, the group kept going, volunteering at various ‘Ohana Produce Plus and Pop-up Food Distribution sites across the island. Altogether, they worked nearly 210 volunteer shifts for more than 1,100 hours of service.

"This has all taught me – we are going to get through all of this. If we keep on doing for others, I know we are on the right path to creating a better Hawaii, a better O‘ahu, a better community around us."

— Cari Nishimura-Burnett, general manager at UFC Gym

On Oct. 21, gyms and fitness facilities were approved to open with limited capacity. Even with staff now able to work again, Cari and her team never stopped volunteering and finding ways to give back. In addition to continuing to serve at food distributions, UFC Gym hosted multiple food drives in 2020. Gathering physical food and monetary donations, the gym provided Hawaii Foodbank with food for more than 10,000 meals.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this experience with so many other people. Seeing everything folks were going through, you mentally had to tell yourself every day that everything is going to be okay,” says Cari. “But this has all taught me – we are going to get through all of this. If we keep on doing for others, I know we are on the right path to creating a better Hawaii, a better O‘ahu, a better community around us.”

For those around her, there’s no denying Cari’s giving heart. Her community can rest assured knowing Cari and her team will “keep on doing for others.”

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