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Pandemic All-Star: Erin Donahue, Informal Fitness Instructor, East Thetford | Health + Fitness | Seven days

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  • Sarah Priestap
  • Erin Donahue, Informal Fitness Instructor, East Thetford

As her 8 a.m. outdoor exercise band loosened up, Erin Donahue gave a quick glimpse of a sleepy newcomer. “All the exercises are written there,” she said, pointing to a sheet of cardboard in the grass scribbled with a purple marker. “Do as much as you’re comfortable with,” she continued, smiling and bouncing like a spring from foot to foot. “And anytime you can stop and just dance.”

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Right on cue, Robin Osborne, dressed in purple workout clothes, gave a little fluttering shimmy to the strains of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” emanating from a Bluetooth speaker.

“Hope you like Barry White!” Donahue chirped before turning to lead the small class – Osborne, Stephanie Carney, three dogs and an out of shape reporter – on a light warm-up jog along a mowed path through a scenic grassy field back home from Osborne to East Thetford. At the end of a lap and some informal, breathy chatter, we returned to our small circle of yoga mats and dumbbells in the yard. As we prepared to enter our first set of lunges, Osborne offered, “This class saved my life.”

Later, Osborne, a psychologist, clarified that she didn’t mean that literally. But for her and many others in the White River Junction area over the past 15 months, Donahue’s informal pandemic-era exercise classes have been a lifeline, if nothing else.

“Erin always reaches out to anyone who needs help,” class regular Amanda DeRoy said in a phone interview.

When COVID-19 shut down Vermont gyms in March 2020, Donahue and the other members of the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction were left out. Thanks to Donahue, that’s where they stayed, and luckily.

“We were all terrified of this pandemic,” Donahue recalls, “but I knew we had to keep training.”

Like Osborne, Donahue is a therapist. “We both knew how important moving is for mental health and relaxation — and for seeing people and dealing with isolation,” Donahue said. “So this class did all three.”

With the blessing of the fitness center, Donahue, who had taken CrossFit classes but had no experience first them, organized informal mornings in the UVAC car park on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m.

“They were totally supportive of me, which I was very grateful for,” Donahue said of the fitness center.

“They lent us some of their stuff,” Osborne added.

Donahue’s first classes drew six people. As word spread, that number grew to 20-25 regulars per class. The practitioners represented a range of ages, genders and professions, from unemployed restaurant staff to published authors to former Dartmouth College professors and at least one celebrity chef. “It was a cool cross section of the upper valley,” Donahue said.

“We would descend in any weather unless it was below 20 degrees,” Osborne recalled. “Especially at the start of the pandemic, it felt good to have somewhere to go.”

“So no one gets bored,” Donahue said, she crafted new tours for each class, writing them on the back of cardboard boxes from mail-order companies like Chewy, the pet supply company of company. And she created new playlists on Spotify.

When UVAC reopened along with other Vermont gyms on July 1, 2020, Donahue moved classes to Osborne’s courtyard rather than continuing in the center parking lot.

“It didn’t feel ethical, and I wanted people to use their membership and go to the gym if they felt safe enough,” Donahue explained.

Over the next few months, attendance dipped to a smaller core group that continued to meet three days a week at Osborne’s home – except for a stretch on Zoom in January when it was too cold .

“I remember at least once we were here with microspikes,” Osborne said.

Carney, a retired teacher and former yoga instructor, added, “We’re the die-hards.”

Editor’s note: To choose the Vermont Pandemic All-Stars, we asked our readers about the people, places, and programs that have kept them going — and going — during the COVID-19 pandemic. Space constraints prevented us from recognizing each choice worthy of the public’s praise.
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