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INTEGRIS brings health, fitness to northeast Oklahoma City community

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Class is over.

An hour of upbeat, fast-paced moving and lifting has come to close — and not soon enough for the scores of people still huffing and heaving from the non-stop aerobic exercise.

But Harold Leverett is still bouncing in place, hardly stopping for an interview.

“Oh yeah, I'm motivated,” he tells NewsChannel 4. “Fired up! Ready to do some more work.”

For Leverett, the exercise is just one part of the reason he comes to Douglass High School on Oklahoma City’s northeast side.

Sure, he’s dropped about 15 pounds over the last year, and he’s finally getting his blood sugar under control.

But ask him what he likes about the twice-weekly work regiment and he’ll tell you it’s the people.

“It is just unbelievable the camaraderie, the relationships, the friendship that we're building,” he said. “The key is really just the people enjoying. He doesn't make it too hard but then again it is challenging.”

“He” is Bilal Konte, an ex-Marine you may still confuse for a drill sergeant.

An exercise practitioner who has been doing community health for two decades, Konte straps on a microphone and barely appears to take a breath during his free hour-long sessions, seamlessly blending inspiration and instruction.

“We are on a journey to health and wellness,” he said to his class at the start of Thursday’s workout.

And what a journey it has been for Konte and the INTEGRIS-sponsored health program that began about a year ago in a MetroTech classroom.

The plan was to bring healthier lifestyles to one of Oklahoma City’s least unhealthiest sectors — the predominately African-American northeast side — a place Konte describes as a “food desert” that lacks sidewalks. It’s one of the several initiatives targeting minorities that display higher rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Dietitians and other health professionals regularly check in and monitor each participant.

Konte’s so-called “Men’s Fit Club” featured about a dozen senior men and quickly became a tight-knit, passionate group.

“We eat together, we pray together, now it's time for us to exercise together,” Konte said. “I just love that we're in the heart of the community. It's time to bring fitness to the people, not the other way around.”

It wasn’t long until more and more people began to buy into Konte’s fitness philosophy.

First, it was the wives of the men in his small group, women like Deborah Riley.

“One husband told his wife that I was there, so she came, she invited a friend, and I invited a friend, and it just created a domino effect,” she said. “Once the women started joining the men then they started bringing their children.”

Pretty soon, the fitness club had outgrown MetroTech. Now a group of more than 80 people has filled the Douglass High cafeteria for a class that bridges gender, class and age divides.

“At first, I was a little overweight, and I wanted to get that off of me, so I started coming here,” said KaTajah Johnson, 13, who first tagged along with his grandfather. “Throughout my life I've kind of been overweight and it just kind of messed with me, so I started exercising trying to get back in my younger days.”

Konte said his course is as much about getting healthy as it is preventing an unhealthy lifestyle down the line, a philosophy for which he credits President Barack Obama and his wellness initiatives.

He breaks from his counting during an exercise to ask his class about its eating habits.

“Can you eat your dinner out of the gas station?” he cries. “We don't eat our dinner out of the gas station. A gas station is not a restaurant.”

And later: “Cheesy and greasy? Not tonight!”

“It's time for some healing to take place, not just management but actually reconditioning people and taking them from fat to fit,” Konte said. “People get upset about ‘f-a-t,’ but you've got to call
it what it is. If you're sick and out of shape, it's time to get in shape.”

Konte said it seems like the community is buying into what he teaches. Perhaps it’s his blend of information and raw, enthusiastic passion. Or maybe it’s his outlook that’s resonating with his students.

“It's more than health, it's a mental thing,” said Deborah Riley. “Do you care enough about yourself to keep your body fit and in shape? Because God gave us these bodies, he made them to last, and we've gotta make that happen.”