Vanessa Garcia-Flores

By Susan Bean Aycock

Trainer/Creator at the G.E.M./TurnUp Waco, Licensed Texas Realtor

She’s young, in top physical condition and has successful double careers as both a fitness trainer and Realtor. But though Vanessa Garcia-Flores seems to have it all right now, she’s worked her tail off to be on such a positive path. Only 20, she is making her career and personal dreams come true after battling years of depression and even suicidal thoughts from a skewed sense of self-worth and belonging. She brings her message of positive self-care to her job as fitness trainer at TurnUp Waco, an all-women’s gym where self-love is encouraged as passionately as building muscle. The message of inclusion is also one she brings to her other jobs as a Realtor and single mom to a young daughter. Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Garcia-Flores recently to talk about fitness, female empowerment and personal integrity not only in the gym but every day as she continues her life journey.

You’re 20, have two demanding careers, work out almost every day and are a single mom. Can you unpack that a little?
I’m Trainer/Creator of the G.E.M., the weight-training component of TurnUp Waco, an all-women’s gym and studio that offers small-group weight and dance fitness training. G.E.M. is kind of like Zumba to Hip Hop hits, but higher intensity and more liberating.

We focus on loving yourself and choosing yourself first. Whatever your roles as a woman, you can still take time out of the day to choose you and do something that makes you feel good. TurnUp Waco is a place where you can look like you want, wear what you want, do training that’s right for you and your body, and not have anyone judge you.

I’m also a licensed real estate agent, specializing in Spanish-speaking clients and first-time home buyers. And yes, I’m a single mom to an almost-two-year-old daughter.

So we’re talking about a gym, except that it’s spelled G.E.M. Explain, please!
G.E.M. — Goddess Energy in Motion — is the weight training component of TurnUp Waco, which is owned by founder Hope Balfa. We train in groups of one to six women, so there’s still that feeling of one-on-one training. As far as I know, it’s the first locally-owned all-women’s gym in Waco. We have all ages, from teens through women in their 70s, from all backgrounds. It’s really a space of our own.

And beyond the gym — or G.E.M.?
I got my [Texas] real estate license at 18, after graduating from high school a year early and a month after I had my daughter. I’ll be entering my second year in the industry in September, and so far I’ve worked on my own. I do work Monday through Friday in my real estate business, but I also work out those days and teach classes. I also do the marketing for TurnUp: content and videos on Instagram, Facebook [Meta] and TikTok. Most of our TurnUp clients find us through social media.

Back to the fitness job in an all-women gym — how did you get into that?
I’d had the idea of creating an all-women’s gym for a long time, but I was going to wait until I got my real estate career really going. Then I met Hope [Balfa] and had the opportunity to help create that gym from the ground up. We were originally going to create a networking event for TurnUp Waco and my real estate business, but one thing led to another and we decided to create an all-women’s gym. Hope and I have very similar goals when it comes to community, self-love and justice that align with each of our spiritual beliefs. Hope opened TurnUp Waco in January of 2023, and the G.E.M. opened there in February of 2024. She had the studio set up and I brought in the equipment: treadmill, stairmaster, squat rack, dumbell rack, medicine balls, yoga mats and leg extension benches.

This is more than just having two jobs — you seem so driven! How do you account for that?
I think I’m driven because of how I grew up and especially because of my mom. She had her own shop in Mexico, and when she came to the U.S. she had an ice cream truck and would drive around Waco every day. She’s always had big dreams and thought outside of the box. My parents both left everything behind — my mom in Mexico and my dad in Honduras — to come to the U.S. so that I could have a better life than they did.

I’m motivated to succeed because of the things I’ve seen in my life: having no financial stability, living in the bedroom of someone else’s home, worrying about bills and what we were able to afford. Some of my family members went through a lot of heavy and deep issues. A lot of people use their financial situations, and life in general, as an excuse not to follow their dreams. But even at a young age, you can be in charge of your own life. If you’re able to turn a difficult situation into a lesson that you learn from, you can grow from it and achieve anything you want. If I had used every hard situation in my life as an excuse not to follow my crazy dreams, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

But you’ve always been an athlete, right? Tell me about that.
I’ve been involved in fitness since I was 4, and have been weight training in a gym since I was 10. It’s taken me 10 years from when I started weight training until now — I’m 20 — to feel confident and comfortable in the gym. I used to hide in the corner or go to only certain machines in the weight training area because I was intimidated by the men, feeling like I was going to be judged or told I didn’t know what I was doing, or wearing the right clothes. When I trained at my high school gym as a freshman on the varsity soccer team, I was fine and didn’t feel intimidated at all. I also did ballet, tap, jazz, martial arts, basketball and track, but my main sport was soccer. Soccer’s a sport that has everything in one: kicking, running in a big open field, and there aren’t many boundaries. It’s pure freedom in that there’s no right or wrong way to train.

You’ve said that there’s a toxicity in the fitness industry that you’re working hard to counteract with G.E.M./TurnUp Waco. What do you mean by that?
Women are often intimidated in male-dominant gyms because we’re told that we won’t get results unless we do so many reps or come in so many days a week. Some women don’t come into the gym because their husbands don’t want them to take the time away from them and the kids, so we’re still bucking the traditional roles that have been pushed on us. Yes, training for results does take consistency, and personal circumstances make it harder for some women than others, particularly those with full-time jobs and families. Sometimes if a woman spends an hour to herself, on something that benefits just her, she feels guilty. And women have heard so many negative things about body image that go to their sense of self-worth. We don’t allow negativity or self-condemning; this is a positive space where we practice self-love and self-care. With G.E.M. classes, I promote healthy, consistent routines to get the results you want, not just physically but mentally and emotionally.

What kinds of numbers have you seen in this first year?
Around 900 women have walked through our doors since TurnUp Waco opened last year and we currently have about 300 active memberships. Most of our clients are older than me, but they trust me to help them feel comfortable and help them get started the right way. I focus a lot on form; you can do 100 squats, but if you’re not doing them right, you’re not going to see results. I try to explain things in a way that makes sense — I take pride in that. Form and consistency are very important.

What changes do you begin to see in women taking your classes?
Even after a short while, women say that they have more energy, even at 6 a.m. when our first classes start! They start throwing away other bad habits. It’s all about starting small and building consistency, and listening to your body. Women often feel like they have to do everything perfectly, but it doesn’t have to be like that. When it comes to our bodies’ needs, a lot has to do with monthly cycles and many people don’t know that. Adjusting your workout schedules and intensity should be based on how you feel, and feeling like you’re not good enough because you’re not perfect enough is one of the main reasons women fall off of their fitness routines.

What was your childhood like and what challenges did you face?
I was born and raised in Waco, and started high school at Waco High School but graduated a year early from Texas Online Preparatory School. I grew up as an only child, and spent a lot of time by myself, especially reading books. I was a good student — I had a 4.6 GPA and loved learning, but hated school. At 16, I was working two jobs to help support my family. A lot of people were really surprised when I didn’t want to go to college. But I felt like college would limit what I wanted to do, which was helping people in the community. I also struggled with depression and anxiety, and working out was my form of therapy, although I did actual therapy as well.

What’s the common denominator in your two careers?
When I first started my real estate career, I was intimidated and closed off, like I was in the weight training gym. I was trying to do what everyone else was doing, but it wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t until I committed to being my authentic self, being honest about all the areas I felt vulnerable about and was trying to overcome, that my career really started to take off.

What do you mean by coming into your authentic self?
Growing up, I felt like I was put into a box. I was smart and outgoing and athletic, but I felt that I had to choose between being pretty and smart. So I was pulled in both directions. I started growing into my authentic self by getting off social media for two years. I had lost myself, and I didn’t know who I was. So I worked out, went to therapy and read books — lots of self-help books.

So much of female fitness in our culture is tied to looks. What’s your take on that?
Here’s the thing: you will absolutely look better physically when you work out consistently. But you’ll also have more energy to do what you want to do, and be more confident, which translates into finding your voice. There was a point in middle school where I was working out but also had eating disorders. In sixth grade, I was anorexic. But by eighth grade, I was overeating and had to deal with that.

You were a city council member in Beverly Hills for about a year. Tell me about that experience.
That’s a funny story. I was knocking on doors for my real estate business, and David Gonzales, the mayor of Beverly Hills, was driving by. He rolled down his window and asked if I was a Realtor and I said yes; he said he was looking for one and then somehow brought up the fact that they had a couple of open seats on the city council and would I be interested in filling one? I had always been active in my church and community — I raised money for Fuzzy Friends in middle school — so I said yes. I served on the [Beverly Hills] city council starting in mid-2023, but I resigned in May of this year because my business really started growing and my plate was just too full. During my time there, I really focused on city parks.

What do you think has made you so civic-minded at such a young age? Do you see yourself as a role model for young Hispanic women?
Waco needs more younger folks to be involved in government and community — we’re young, but we can affect such change. Being young is no excuse to think you can’t make a difference.

And yes, I do think I can serve as a role model — not particularly because of who I am, but because of what I’ve gone through. Dealing with mental health issues and financial insecurity haven’t stopped me from achieving what I want. And being completely transparent about my own struggles has helped me grow into my authentic self. For a while, I posted videos on TikTok talking about my life and difficulties, and was averaging 700,000 views by just opening up about the things I was going through. I still do that with my clients, and I think a lot of women see themselves in me. I’m willing to speak out about my experiences and be available for them to reach out and ask questions, whether it’s in the gym or in my real estate business.

In both of your careers, it sounds like your job title is really ‘motivator.’ Is that true?
I’m heavy on educating all my clients and doing what’s right for them, even if it’s something they don’t initially want to hear.

At the gym, someone may come in on their first day saying they’re scared to try a workout or can’t go up in weight. I tell them they can, to try it for one set and then see how they feel. When they do it, they feel so confident and accomplished!

As a Realtor, I want to be realistic, and I especially enjoy helping first-time home buyers and Spanish-speakers. People sometimes think that buying a house is out of reach, but there are so many programs and options that they might not know about.

Tell me about your daughter.
Her name Ailani — that means ‘of heaven’ though I forget in which language! She’ll be 2 in August. Her middle name is Alya, which means ‘high-status empress.’ I went through a lot of complications in my pregnancy, and for her to come out so healthy and happy is really a gift from heaven. Her father and I split two weeks after she was born, so I’m raising her as a single mom.

What do you do for fun?
I love to work out! But I also like to watch sunsets and take my daughter to the park. We like to take drives and listen to music, especially Spanish-language music by artists like Rauw Alejandro and Bad Bunny, and reggaeton [the top music genre in Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations]. I really like exploring the world and its cultures.

What keeps you up at night?
The fear of failing, but only every now and then. I know that I’ll only really fail if I give up. I want to create a life that my daughter can lean back on. And I want to help my parents retire and not have to keep working forever.

You have tattoos on both forearms — one is your daughter’s name and birthdate. What about the other?
I got my butterfly-plus-semicolon tattoo the day I turned 18. A butterfly represents positive change and growth. My name means butterfly, and I’ve been told by several people that I remind them of a butterfly. I overcame a lot of body image and mental health issues that affected me for more than five years, so I wanted to represent that change because it’s something I never thought I’d be able to get over. The semicolon is the symbol for a person who could have chosen to end their life but continued it. As a suicide survivor, [the semicolon tattoo] was important to me because of the serious self-harm issues I dealt with during most of my pre-teen and teenage years. I went through huge change and growth right before I turned 17, and I could never see myself going back to that dark past. Both the butterfly and semicolon represent a huge part of who I am today. I combined them into one meaningful tattoo that I can always look at on hard days and remind myself of how far I’ve come.

What gives you hope?
My daughter. And seeing women in our community grow because they are choosing themselves. The change in women from their first day in the gym to where they are now is so great, I know I must be doing something right. We’re helping women to put themselves first because they deserve it.

For more information on TurnUp Waco or G.E.M. classes, call 254-312-5610.