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Ex-prisoner trains freed felons to become gym instructors

Hector Guadalupe traded prison bars for barbells and he’s out to prove other ex-cons can do it, too.

The Brooklyn fitness guru served 10 years in prison for drug dealing. When he got out personal training certificate in hand he was determined to make a new life for himself while offering a hand up to fellow ex-offenders.

“I have seen firsthand the struggle many formerly incarcerated individuals face once they come home,” Guadalupe says.

Two years ago, the 39-year-old launched Unibody, a personal training business currently staffed by six reformed and fit felons. The small company is an independent contractor at the bustling CompleteBody gym in Chelsea, an old-school joint that Guadalupe calls “a hidden gem of the city.”

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Months after starting Unibody, he founded what he tenderly refers to as “my baby, my heart” — A Second U.

It’s a nonprofit that recruits recently freed felons, ushers them through a challenging six-week curriculum and helps them score jobs at health clubs around the city.

“We’re like the cheat-sheet for men and women coming home, who don’t have to struggle the way I did,” Guadalupe explains. If they prove themselves at the health clubs and build a clientele, Guadalupe is thrilled to hire them at Unibody.

To date, A Second U has graduated 70 people — and 98% have maintained active employment, he says.

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More recently, he’s entered a partnership with Columbia Business School to encourage 200 city employers to hire 2,000 ex-prisoners by the year 2020.

His message to them: “Don’t fear this population.”

“Hector is driven by something bigger than himself much bigger,” says Guadalupe’s lead collaborator at Columbia, social enterprise professor Damon Phillips.

Guadalupe’s promising path may be unexpected for someone who’s walked a mile in his gym sneaks. He grew up poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and lost both parents to cancer when he was a teenager.

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“I grew up in the hood and after losing my parents, it was a stressful time,” he said. “I got involved with hanging out on the streets.”

After getting into multi-state drug-dealing, the law caught up with him. He landed in cuffs at age 23.

Guadalupe’s federal case went to the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where he was convicted on a charge of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. He was hit with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in spite of being a first-time, nonviolent offender.

Throughout his sentence, he was shuffled between five facilities, including the low-security Fort Dix federal lockup in New Jersey. Toward the end of his decade-long sentence — prodded by a buddy who’d noted he was looking chunky — Guadalupe found a passion for exercise.

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Two years ago, the 39-year-old launched Unibody, a personal training business currently staffed by six reformed — and fit — felons.

(Susan Watts/New York Daily News)

“The next day I started working out, and it never stopped,” he laughed. “I’ve always been athletic and always had a love of working out, I just never did it regularly ’til I was incarcerated.”

During his time in the big house, the muscle-bound businessman asked himself the tough questions.

“How do I keep myself healthy? How do I stay human? How do I stay disciplined? How do I stay in touch with reality?”

He discovered he was a natural as a personal trainer, with a flare for entrepreneurship.

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He started instructing other prisoners, and completed his own fitness trainer certification.

At the end of 2012, Guadalupe was one of 650,000 ex-offenders returning home, according to Justice Department statistics. Surveys estimate that two-thirds of released prisoners will re-offend and end up back in prison within a year. Though numerous studies have found employment is a key factor in preventing recidivism, more than half of the formerly incarcerated remain jobless a year out of prison — a troubling stat that comes as little surprise to Guadalupe.

It’s why his recruiters hold weekly workshops at federal re-entry centers in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and why they set up shop at job fairs for the formerly incarcerated.

Phillips said Guadalupe is a powerful example of why stigmatization against those with criminal records is wrong — logically, and morally.

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“He’s a business entrepreneur, but also a social entrepreneur,” Phillips told The News.

He’s also an inspiration for people transitioning to life after prison.

“You can see how moved they are by it,” Phillips said. “You can physically see how moved they are by what he’s done.”

Guadalupe also plans to return to an unlikely place: prison.

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“Most felons don’t have an education, so that strikes you down,” he says. His goal is to collaborate with facilities where he’ll be able to mentor inmates and eventually recruit standouts before they are even released.

“I’m trying to build a team that can be involved with the rehabilitation process,” he says.

“Everything I went through and everything I learned through trial and error, I use,” he says. “This program is based solely on my journey.”

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