PLAINFIELD – “She’s amazing!”
That was the refrain from one woman after another Tuesday evening at the clubhouse in Plainfield’s Wesmere subdivision. They were referring to Zyrelkis “Zee” Santiago, one of the fitness teachers at the clubhouse for the last three years.
Becky Schwab, 30, of Lisle, said she drives 45 minutes just to attend one of Santiago’s 30-minute classes.
“I love Zee,” Schwab said. “She’s inspirational.”
Inspiring her students is the main reason Santiago, who had her third baby five months ago and taught up until three days before delivery, teaches in the first place.
That’s because Santiago, who turns 39 on Wednesday, understands the struggle and “body shaming” many women experience trying to shed extra pounds, attain fitness and boost their self image. She’s been there.
“I was overweight myself. I wasn’t always fit and healthy,” Santiago said. “Actually, I lost 90 pounds seven and a half years ago. And I was a bully victim for many years when I was younger. I always said, ‘One day, I’m going to find a way to raise my voice and inspire other people.’ I just didn’t know how.”
Santiago goes Cray-Zee
The opportunity came when Santiago discovered the Insanity workout on DVD and started exercising to them. Then she joined a live class when that, too, became available. Because her classmates responded to her encouragement, Santiago said the teacher told her, “You should become an instructor, too.”
So Santiago, who had a bachelor’s degree in computer programming and a master’s degree in education, decided to “take a leap of faith,” earn her Insanity certification and keep going to become certified in Turbo Kick, Pound and Cize.
“I had worked for the federal government for several years, but I knew something was missing. It was not my passion,” Santiago said. “When I started doing fitness and health, it didn’t feel like work. It felt like a hobby – doing something fun and meeting new friends.”
She also teaches Black Light Zumba and Zeenergy, which is Santiago’s take on Insanity. Santiago mostly teaches at the Wesmere clubhouse – Santiago has lived in the subdivision for six years, she said – but she also teaches at Anytime Fitness in Romeoville and Bolingbrook.
“My one day off is Sunday,” Santiago said. “I teach all year round, unless I’m sick or on vacation, which I hardly ever go. My dream is to one day open my own studio. The girls are very supportive of that. We’ve been trying for a while, but it costs a lot.”
Corey Hromek, clubhouse director, said that before Santiago began teaching, the fitness classes the subdivision offered were not well-received. Hromek feels Santiago’s success is partly due to her proficiency in new, different and current trends.
“The ones [classes] with the most success have instructors that the students like and enjoy,” Hromek said. “I think that Zee certainly fits the bill here.”
Building a tribe
Nina Campbell of Plainfield was battling excess pregnancy weight and postpartum depression when she joined a fitness class. Campbell saw little results until she learned about Morales’ classes and decided to give them a try.
Santiago’s encouragement, nutrition advice, the recipes she shares with her students and the auxiliary Facebook group Santiago runs for her students – which has more than 800 members and is growing – made all the difference for Campbell.
“She literally saved my life,” Campbell said. “She’s one of a kind.”
Deanna Leonhardt of Plainfield also lost her pregnancy weight – Leonhardt has a 20-month-old – through Santiago’s classes, which Santiago teaches to music, Leonhardt said. Now that Leonhardt is pregnant again, Santiago’s commitment to exercise during her own pregnancy is motivating Leonhardt.
“She’s so cool and such a great role model,” Leonhardt said.
Students range in age from young adult to seniors, and Santiago is happy to modify classes to meet students’ needs and abilities. Santiago’s classes at the Wesmere clubhouse are free for residents and $5 for non-residents, but Santiago is forever offering punch cards and freebies, such as on Tuesday night.
“It’s Valentine’s Day,” Santiago said. “Tonight, nobody pays.”
Many classes begin with Santiago taking class selfies and posting them on social media. She encourages her students to share photos of their progress on Santiago’s Facebook group page.
“Some have lost 100 pounds, some 90, some 30 and some are just starting the journey with me,” Santiago said. “I have students that come every single day. They follow me from Wesmere to Romeoville and Bolingbrook and are very active in the group. And then we have the quiet ones [on the Facebook group] who are waiting for the right time to join.”
Santiago helps with meal plans, calories calculation and portion control, which Santiago said helps keep them accountable. Santiago considers herself teacher, advocate and friend.
“We help each other with more than fitness,” Santiago said. “They came out to my baby shower. We support each other. We have tank tops we created for the group and we came up with the name together.”
Santiago’s own cheerleader is her husband, Gilberto Morales. He not only cares for their three children – Zyrelisse, 10; Josmany, 6; and Junyel, 5 months – while Santiago teaches, his insistence Santiago follow her passion lets her be a full-time mom during the day, too.
And Santiago knows how hard it is for moms to find time to workout.
“Fitness is hard. I work very hard to make it fun,” Santiago said. “”People make a ton of excuses not to exercise. It’s either boring or hard or they fall off the wagon, so I’m constantly changing the game, constantly on top of them, asking for feedback.”
Jennifer Koss of Joliet celebrated her one-year anniversary last week. The classes with the “high energy, good team spirit” have given Koss a much-needed outlet, she said.
“They’ve taught me to deal with life a little better,” Koss said.
For information on Morales’ classes, call 779-875-7027, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Facebook page: Cray-Zee Fit Mom.