written by Bettinita Harris
They start gathering in the lobby of the Hockessin Athletic Club about 6:45 pm on most Fridays.
Parents greet each other and quickly take a seat. As they settle in to read books, knit or chat with each other, their young adult children dart to the sign-up desk.
First, they create name tags. Then they register for one of three activities: circuit training, powerlifting, or swimming.
A low hum fills the air as volunteers and participants give each other high-fives, low-fives and fist bumps, then catch up from the previous week.
This is the Community Fitness Fridays event at HAC, where a platoon of certified personal trainers and volunteers join forces to create a 90-minute workout for people with special needs or a disability. The program is free and open to the public. Volunteers include HAC employees and community members; anyone is welcome to volunteer.
“This is my daughter’s only social outlet,” said Jim Dolphin, whose 24-year-old daughter, Lynn, swims. “This program is as much social as it is athletic.”
Fitness Fridays began in May 2013 after Kristi Leigh Morgan, HAC personal trainer, volunteered at a Special Olympics Delaware event the previous year.
“I absolutely loved it,” said Leigh Morgan, who is in charge of the HAC program. “I wanted to bring people from HAC to participate.”
When she approached the organization, Mark Wise, director of Training and Volunteer
Management for Special Olympics Delaware, had a different idea.
Wise proposed that HAC sponsor athletes by offering general sports training one month before the annual Special Olympics Delaware event in June. HAC officials agreed.
“It’s the highlight of their week,” said Wise, referring to the participants. “They have an opportunity to work on general fitness. And it’s a huge social aspect for them because they are exercising among their peers.”
The program was supposed to last one month and offer participants circuit training, a system in which you perform a series of about 15 exercises. But it has developed into a year-round event that boasts about 20 participants and volunteers and added powerlifting and swimming, Leigh Morgan said.
Wise says the program has now taken on a life of its own.
“The ultimate goal is to continue the program on a year-round basis and take the model to family gyms like the YMCA to see if I can inspire them to do the same thing we are doing,’’ Leigh Morgan said. “The goal is to make sure more people in the community can be reached.”
“They can achieve it”
About 7:00 pm, participants and volunteers head to the gym for a 30-minute warmup before separating to do other activities. As they form a large circle, the ringmasters – HAC personal trainers Damon Marable and Ron Shoop – take their place at center stage.
“OK. We’re going to start with torso twists,” Marable says to the group. “Come on. Make sure you turn so that you get a good stretch. … Yes, that’s it.”Then come side lunges, jumping jacks and squats.
High-fives and fist bumps among the group accompany the end of each exercise.
“My goal is to give them encouragement and motivation to believe that if they put their mind and heart into something, they can achieve it,” said Marable, who has worked at HAC five years. After that, more exercises. High knees. Butt kicks. Arm circles.
“I think that for people who may not be as involved in training, it’s an opportunity for them to see what it is like,” said Susan Gootzait, whose daughter, Amy, 35, recently started attending the program. “Fitness for this population is very important, as it is for all of us. This population is so under-served.”
“Who has an exercise they want to do?” Shoop asks.
Siegmund “Ziggy” Tomczyk, 28, steps forward.
With hands on hips, Ziggy moves his hips in large circles.
“Ok, it’s hip circles. Come on. Move those hips,” Marable says. “Who’s next?”
Amy drops to the floor and does five push-ups.
“Oh, no. No,’’ the crowd moans.
After the push-ups, the group jogs around the gym a few times before breaking up to head to the activity of their choice.
“The embodiment of our mission statement”
Most participants choose HAC’s personal training rooms, which have been transformed into a gigantic circuit of about 15 different exercises. Before entering, participants are paired with a volunteer who has been trained to use the equipment and introduced to the program’s philosophy.
As music blares in the background and under the watchful eyes of a volunteer, participants scurry from step-ups to sit-ups to the bench press to box slides.
“We are going to do this for one minute,” said volunteer Christine Wallace, referring to step-ups.
“Awesome,” says Elizabeth Nolan, who was chosen the 2013 Special Olympics Delaware Outstanding Athlete.
“I love your attitude,” Wallace says. “Thanks.”
This is Wallace’s second time at Fitness Fridays. She said she volunteered because her brother gets such a reward and so much enjoyment from it. Volunteer Ed Bruno has been a regular with Community Fitness Fridays almost from the beginning. He said he participates because he has been fortunate in life and wants to give back. Bruno said his role is to make the program as fun as possible for whomever he works with.
He said that feeling is apparent from the participants, who see there are caring people in the community. He said it also shows him something about HAC, of which he has been a member since 2007.
“This program is the embodiment of our mission statement,” Bruno said.”I can do this”
At the back of the weight room, four participants make their way to the squat racks.
They are powerlifters who test their strength by lifting maximal weight on three lifts: squats, bench press and deadlift.
First up is Erin Bailey, 32, who likes to play to the crowd.
“Now, Erin, I want you to focus tonight,” Shoop says. “I want you to use your legs, not your back, to lift. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Erin nods and moves toward the bar. “OK, baby girl, your hands should be a little wider than your feet,’’ Marable says. “Your shoelaces should be past the bar. Get in a seated position. Chest out. Head up. When you lift, get back on those heels.”
Erin rips off five repetitions, drops the bar and raises her arms in victory. The group cheers.
“That was good,” Shoop says. “You’re killing it tonight.”
Bailey said Fitness Fridays keep her motivated and give her a chance to work with other athletes.
“It has made me get stronger,” said Bailey, whose personal best at the deadlift is 155 pounds. “It has shown me that I can do this. I know a lot of people put me down. But I can show people that a girl can powerlift.”
Shoop said he likes the interaction with participants and their interaction with each other.
“The technical stuff, that’s the least important thing. They will get that,” said Shoop, who has worked at HAC for almost six years. “I like the sense of achievement in their eyes.’’
“Just like any other swim team practice”
Down at the pool, seven participants are swimming laps over two lanes. One lane is reserved for advanced swimmers, the other for beginner and intermediate swimmers.
Four volunteers who are lifeguards or swim instructors are in the water, too.
On the deck is Kristin McCoy, a HAC aquatics director.
McCoy calls out a stroke, and the swimmers follow the command.
“There is satisfaction in knowing that they are having a good time and that they are learning something new,’’ said McCoy, who has worked at HAC for seven years.
The session begins with participants swimming laps using the stroke of their choice. Swimmers then work on all four strokes – freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly – kicks, drills and swim sets.
“We work on diving at the end. They love that,” McCoy said.
Parents sitting at poolside say they know some people have difficulty relating to people with special needs. But, they said, that’s not the case with the HAC staff who volunteer.
Their children are treated like any other athlete, and that’s the way McCoy wants it.
“The practice,” she says, “is just like any other swim team practice.”