When she moved from Sacramento to San Francisco a little over six years ago, the last thing on LaWanda Dickerson’s mind was becoming a fitness guru.
She initially made a living as a plus-size runway model, working for designers represented by Macy’s and Nordstrom. After 2008, the market dried up, costs were cut and she wasn’t sure what her next move would be, Dickerson said. But she took a leap of faith and decided to resettle in San Francisco with her husband and two kids.
Then, just two years later, the unthinkable happened: Their Portola District house burned down, and they lost everything.
"We went from hotels to Airbnbs to timeshares, but it was challenging times because we had to decide whether we were going to stay in San Francisco or go back to the comfort of Sacramento," Dickerson said of her family's 60 days of homelessness following the fire. "We made the conscious decision to work it out and keep our faith and trust that everything was going to work itself out, and it did."
Being relatively new to San Francisco made re-establishing themselves even more challenging. And, despite being a confident plus-size-model, behind the scenes she was already struggling to lose weight to avoid health problems that she knew ran in her family.
"...in that process, I was alone," Dickerson said. "I didn’t have a community to rely on, but all I knew was that there was more to me than this. I was more than just being 220 pounds, size 14/16."
And that's when she started exercising. "I just started walking hills. It wasn’t anything spectacular or special, all I knew was that I needed something to do every day that was going to make me feel better about myself," Dickerson said. "At the time major depression set in, the worry about my kids, what my husband and I were going to do to push forward through this."
Soon after, Dickerson landed a job in Potrero Hill and was able to afford a gym membership.
For Dickerson, a Bayview resident for a little more than three years now, the transition from gym member to certified personal trainer, health and wellness life coach and fitness instructor stemmed from wanting to know everything there is about wellness. She secured certifications from the National Association of Sports Medicine in personal training, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and bodybuilding, to pair with her existing certification in life coaching and doctorate degree.
While she didn't initially set out to launch her own business, Dickerson's regular presence at the gym put her in the perfect position to impress potential clients. While working out at the gym one day, a man who had just received a negative evaluation from his doctor approached her, desperately seeking a personal trainer, Dickerson said. The proposition was unexpected but jump-started her personal training business U3FIT, which she's operated since 2013 in the Bayview District.
One of her most notable clients, Dickerson said, is a 52-year-old woman who was epileptic and wheelchair-bound. The woman, who was raised in the neighborhood, suffered from spinal stenosis and an unsteady gait. While monitored by a care provider, she went to the same gym every day with hopes of gaining muscle mass so she could live independently.
“When we met, she told me that we didn’t even need to talk and she knew I was the one," Dickerson said.
Over the next of six months, Dickerson worked with this client to build strength, muscle mass and core stabilization to help her start walking on her own. She also helped the woman practice life skills, including bathing herself, cooking for herself and picking herself up after a fall.
"Over time, she got so excited about her progress because she had never seen herself at the size that she was," Dickerson recalled. "So we shifted the focus from muscle building to weight loss, and she ended up losing 21 pounds and 19 inches. She now can walk two miles and 40 percent of those miles are inclined. She walks from home to the gym every day and doesn’t use her scooter. She’s independent and cooks her own meals, cleans her own kitchen and does her own grocery shopping. This all happened within a six month period of being consistent.”
And this one client's health and wellness improvements has been a visible inspiration to the wider community, Dickerson said.
“Everyone knows her in this community and there were times when people jumped out of their cars and stopped traffic, cry, scream and yell because they didn’t even know she could walk. They had no idea it was possible for her," she said. "One woman fell to her knees and started giving God praise because she felt it was a miracle. It’s more than her getting healthy, but it's a testament that all things are possible.”
A website and active social media presence also helps U3FIT secure more clients. But clients becoming more visibly active in the community has proven most successful for business growth.
“Everybody bears life and purpose, and Bayview is not exempt. This is a prime place for us to be able to see our own people flourishing with confidence," Dickerson said. "People are now able to see what’s possible, and that’s why I love everything about working in this community, and I don't plan on leaving."
"Everybody here wants to see everyone make it, and people get encouraged when they see it happen in their own front yard," she continued. "It’s a vibe, it’s community and it’s the teamwork makes the dream work. We all play a part.”
To learn more about Dickerson and her personal training and life-coaching services, visit the U3FIT website.