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Memphis is perhaps best known as the birthplace of soul music, where records like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes broke records, but it’s also home to the world’s first large-scale non-profit climbing gym. Memphis Rox is committed to bringing climbing to a more diverse audience and building trust, both mentally and physically, among disadvantaged young people.
“Titles don’t play a role in climbing – the heart counts,” says Sarah Grai, director of the non-profit organization One Family Memphis, the fitness studio’s umbrella organization. “You will see groups huddle across the gym, discussing routes and strategies, and wealthy individuals climbing alongside teenagers from the neighborhood. Climbing brings people together by nature. “
Soulsenders Climbing Team member Aden, 16, climbs in a competition in Memphis Rox
The idea started with film director Tom Shadyac, whose blockbuster films include Ace Ventura and The Nutty Professor. After a serious mountain bike accident in 2007, Shadyac decided to change his life and drove from Hollywood to Memphis, Tennessee, where he began teaching at the University and LeMoyne-Owen College near Soulsville. To do more for the area, Shadyac bought a failed retail project across from the historically black liberal arts college and turned it into a state-of-the-art climbing gym in 2018.
Titles don’t play a role in climbing – the heart counts
The gym spans 80,000 square feet and is paneled with vibrant murals, while climbing holds of all shapes, sizes, and colors line the interior walls. But what makes Memphis Rox different is its integrative approach. Nobody is turned away; those who cannot afford membership simply pay what they can, and for those who cannot afford it, five hours of volunteering per month is the equivalent of a monthly membership. Volunteers can help in a variety of ways, from participating in neighborhood cleanups to helping out in the gym’s educational food garden and in-house Juice Almighty café – a nod to Bruce Almighty – which offers healthy meals and snacks. The goal is to diversify a climbing community dominated by white men: 77 percent of Memphis Rox employees are colored.
Memphis Rox employee Quantas Seward. 77 percent of Memphis Rox employees are colored
Professional climber Ashima Shiraishi, left, meets young climbers
But it’s not just about climbing. “Our members aren’t just joining a gym – they’re joining a revolution designed to inspire and transform climbing culture while also opening up opportunities for our local community,” says Grai. Memphis Rox employs local people whenever possible, and of the 40 or so employees, more than half live in Soulsville, an underserved area with high levels of crime and unemployment. Grai says the staff act as local advocates and add to the understanding of the city’s needs. “By investing directly in the neighborhood, we have won their trust. As Tom Shadyac says, “We’re not here to fix the community. We are here to be in the community. ‘”
After Covid, Memphis Rox is hoping to restart some of its community programs and launch new programs, including a partnership with Catalyst Climbing – a climbing coaching organization based in London – which will offer free workshops in October.
“The more fashionable the sport becomes, the more climbers around the world, and that means more potential donors and nice people serving their communities,” said Jon Hawk, director of operations. “I would like more climbing centers to reach out to their local nonprofits to organize free group events and make climbing accessible to a group of people who otherwise would never have had access and would otherwise never have met.”