Memphis Rox: Everyone’s invited

Original text from Rock and Ice article ‘Free for all’ by Owen Clarke, Feb 2019

Founded by Hollywood director Tom Shadyac — whose father, Richard Shadyac, was instrumental in developing the non-profit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis — Memphis Rox climbing gym runs on an experimental pay-as-you-can membership model. It’s the only gym of its kind in the country.

Anyone can climb here,” Shadyac says.

While climbing is notorious for its dirtbags and Sprinter Vans, it has been largely inaccessible to underprivileged urban youth. Shoes cost money, harnesses cost money, and there are few outdoor gear shops in inner cities … forget about it. Additionally, in urban areas where 16 percent of people live below the poverty line, compared with just over 13 percent in rural areas, according to 2015 Census Bureau data, youth have limited or no access to outdoor climbing.

This is where gyms like Memphis Rox — which opened in March — are changing the game. Memphis Rox gives inner-city and at-risk youth a chance to experience climbing for the first time.

The 32,000-square-foot gym is in the heart of Soulsville, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in not only Memphis — which had a poverty rate of 26 percent as of 2015, 12 percent higher than the national poverty rate — but in the entire country. It is also one of the most violent, with a homicide rate 64 percent higher than Chicago’s in 2016.

“Because we’re the only rock-climbing gym in Memphis at the moment, we’re bringing people here to Soulsville from all over the city,” Shadyac says. “People who wouldn’t normally ever cross paths with each other are meeting here.”

Zack Rogers, the gym’s director of administration, says that giving back to the community counts as “currency” at Memphis Rox, if someone can’t afford a membership. To “pay” their way, someone who wants to climb can volunteer anywhere in the Memphis community or be a volunteer belayer at the gym. Volunteer hours earn a membership. In addition, the gym has a mentorship program that pairs kids with staff mentors based on their interests. Meeting with their mentors five times per month earns the memberships for the kids.

By making climbing more accessible, Shadyac hopes to keep kids in school and off the streets, and give them a means to challenge themselves and grow. “Climbing is such a collaborative, cooperative sport,” he says. “It’s unique, in that your climbing is not diminished, if someone else is climbing really well.”