He sees no barriers in NoLibs

Dwayne Adams, in­side his North­ern Liber­ties row­ing and ath­let­ics club, which was re­cently robbed of much of its ex­er­cise equip­ment, fears his gym may need to close soon. SAM NE­W­HOUSE / STAR PHOTO

After thieves robbed his North­ern Liber­ties-based com­pet­it­ive row­ing train­ing fa­cil­ity, Dwayne Adams said he’s try­ing to move on and stick to what was al­ways his goal — help­ing loc­al kids.

Nearly three weeks after thieves stole an ar­ray of fit­ness equip­ment from the brand-new loc­a­tion of his row­ing school and ath­let­ics gym, Dwayne Adams said he is start­ing to pick up the pieces and plan how he can move on.

“I found out Monday morn­ing [March 3]. I didn’t get a call. When I clicked the light on, this is what I saw. I just froze,” Adams said, gaz­ing at the former in­dus­tri­al space he has ren­ted since Oc­to­ber. “For like four days, I didn’t talk to any­body.”

Over the week­end of March 1-2, a whole wall of weights, two dumb­bell racks, a tread­mill, sev­er­al spin­ning ma­chines and even mats cov­er­ing part of the floor were stolen from Adams’ fa­cil­ity, Break­ing Bar­ri­ers. Adams es­tim­ated the losses at up­ward of $120,000 in equip­ment, much of which he ac­cu­mu­lated over years and can­not eas­ily re­place.

Po­lice say the in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the rob­bery is ogo­ing.

“It hurts fin­an­cially. I could lose this build­ing. But who would lose out more than me is the kids,” Adams said. “I figured this was the fi­nal stop for Break­ing Bar­ri­ers. Now, I might lose it.”

In 2005, Adams foun­ded Break­ing Bar­ri­ers. Through the pro­gram, he works with loc­al youths to train them in com­pet­it­ive row­ing. He cur­rently works with about 25 kids. One group from Phil­adelphia Men­non­ite Charter School comes weekly to work out, but last week, one stu­dent didn’t come be­cause he heard that Adams had been robbed, and he didn’t think there was any equip­ment left.

“I told the kids, ‘My name is Break­ing Bar­ri­ers. This is not go­ing to stop me,’” Adams re­called.

Adams, 53, has traveled the world com­pet­it­ively row­ing with the U.S. Ad­apt­ive Row­ing team ever since he picked up the sport at age 38 dur­ing re­hab­il­it­a­tion — a stray-bul­let shoot­ing left him leg­ally blind, with only par­tial vis­ion in his right eye, and with no sense of smell.

Pri­or to the shoot­ing, Adams was a Com­cast cus­tom­er ser­vice rep­res­ent­at­ive. That stray-bul­let shoot­ing — which happened in North Philly as he was sit­ting on his moth­er’s step — may seem like a curse to most people, but the stub­bornly op­tim­ist­ic Adams said he saw it as the ac­ci­dent that gave him a second life.

“I’m not say­ing I am these people, but just the way God dir­ec­ted Moses and Noah, he dir­ec­ted me,” Adams said.

As an ad­apt­ive row­er, Adams com­peted in the same boat as row­ers who had dis­ab­il­it­ies such as cereb­ral palsy or were single- or double-am­putees.

In 2005, Adams star­ted teach­ing row­ing through The Bridge School in Fox Chase, a Phil­adelphia non­profit that works with ad­oles­cents seek­ing to over­come sub­stance ab­use, school tru­ancy and oth­er men­tal or be­ha­vi­or­al chal­lenges. He said that he saw teen­age boys who had threatened to kill one an­oth­er be­come friends who trus­ted one an­oth­er through the ex­per­i­ence of com­pet­it­ive row­ing.

Over the next few years, Adams star­ted in­vit­ing stu­dents to Boat­house Row on the Schuylkill River for train­ing. He’s also brought stu­dents to the Wilm­ing­ton Youth Row­ing As­so­ci­ation to train at their in­door row­ing tank.

But us­ing oth­er fa­cil­it­ies has cost Adams per­son­ally as much as $350 per stu­dent, a charge he doesn’t pass on to the par­ents.

That’s why he re­cently bought his own boat and paddles, and de­cided to start rent­ing his own gym space. Now he rents stor­age space for his boat in South Philly near the Phil­adelphia Trol­ley Works, and launches his stu­dents on six- to eight-mile rows from there.  In Oc­to­ber, he scraped to­geth­er his sav­ings to start rent­ing an empty ware­house at 517 Pop­lar St. in North­ern Liber­ties.

Adams said he stresses to his stu­dents the con­cepts of dis­cip­line, re­spons­ib­il­ity and ac­count­ab­il­ity, not to men­tion the ba­sics of row­ing — how keep your boat straight, check­ing over your shoulder every eight strokes, con­di­tion­ing one’s muscles for the sport.

“Every child is worth sav­ing, even if it’s only one child. Sav­ing chil­dren, telling chil­dren that they’re spe­cial and they de­serve all this at­ten­tion – I think it’s the greatest call­ing,” said Eve Saint-Gir­ard, pres­id­ent of the Liber­ties Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation. She said Adams has done won­der­ful things for the neigh­bor­hood.

Adams said he’s a mem­ber of the North­ern Liber­ties Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation and really loves the neigh­bor­hood. He said he hopes Break­ing Bar­ri­ers’ loc­a­tion on the west side of NoLibs, fur­ther from the hustle and bustle of at­trac­tions like the Piazza at Schmidt’s, could help bring more people to the area.

“This is a sad story. Break­ing Bar­ri­ers is one of US­Row­ing’s ori­gin­al Amer­ica Rows com­munity row­ing pro­grams,” said Richard But­ler, in­clu­sion man­ager at US­Row­ing, a na­tion­wide ini­ti­at­ive that cur­rently sup­ports sev­er­al dozen row­ing or­gan­iz­a­tions and club pro­grams. “The row­ing com­munity needs to rally and en­sure that Break­ing Bar­ri­ers can con­tin­ue to in­spire and serve hun­dreds of Phil­adelphia youth.”

Adams said that Bish­op Keith Reed of Shar­on Baptist Church blessed his gym just a little while be­fore the rob­bery took place. And the way he’s chosen to look at this in­cid­ent, per­haps only the things that wer­en’t meant to be in the build­ing were stolen.

“They didn’t touch my row­ing ma­chines. That’s my heart,” Adams said. “I’m think­ing, ‘Maybe I didn’t need all those weights.’”

Adams said he har­bors no grudge against the thieves who robbed him. Tire­lessly op­tim­ist­ic, he’s cur­rently look­ing for back­ers that can help him get the gym on its feet, and is talk­ing to friends in­volved in the Cross­Fit gym fran­chise. He’s still fo­cused on his ori­gin­al vis­ion of set­ting up a gym with a com­puter lab and juice bar where kids can train.

“From start­ing out with a laptop and eight kids, to fi­nally filling this place out to what it can be — it’s a bless­ing,” Adams said.

U.S. Row­ing is col­lect­ing dona­tions to sup­port Break­ing Bar­ri­ers. Checks can be sent to US­Row­ing, At­ten­tion: Break­ing Bar­ri­ers Dona­tion, 2 Wall Street, Prin­ceton, N.J. 08540.

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­house@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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