Fort Worth – A gym is more than a space filled with exercise equipment. It’s a place to release energy or stress, a place to become healthier, a place to meet other people, a place to incorporate into a routine.
For some people with disabilities, though, finding a gym than can provide all of those benefits can be difficult. Equipment may not be accessible for someone with a wheelchair or walker or crutches. Staff may not be prepared to provide support for special needs.
While the Neuro Fitness Foundation’s facility may not compare to other elaborate gym across the area, it does offer what those gyms cannot. It is a place made specifically for people who are neurologically impaired, and it serves the same role as a traditional gym in addition to the sense of confidence and independence craved by individuals who sometimes rely on others.
T.J. Griffin broke his neck in 1990 as a senior at Trinity Valley High School during a football game. He’d spent his time working out as an athlete, and now he spends time working out to strengthen his body and cut down on health risks that can affect quadriplegics as well as other able-bodied people, like cardiovascular disease or being overweight.
“It’s actually a gym mentally here, which is nice,” Griffin said of the Neuro Fitness Foundation.
The organization moved into a new facility in Euless in September 2009, and the space looks like many other independently-owned gyms. Largely run by volunteers, the equipment is more accessible for people who have various conditions, from paralysis to spina bifida or multiple sclerosis to those recovering from a stroke or brain injury.
“You think ‘disability,’ you automatically think ‘chair,’ but there [are] so many different kinds,” Griffin said.
Shelby Lauderdale, who spent several years working in a physical therapy clinic and also has some background in the personal training world, assists the gym patrons and supervises the workouts in his role as fitness director. He’s also the only person on payroll for the foundation, which will spend about $25,000 in 2010 on the new facility’s rent and utilities, according to its budget.
Lauderdale said those who visit the Neuro Fitness Foundation gym usually have participated in clinical physical rehabilitation and therapy already and are familiar with what to do for their bodies or what not to do.
Like other gyms, the individual patrons are the ones who really decide what they want to work on.
“You just adapt everything to what they can do,” Lauderdale said. “And a lot of it is what they want to do.”
For individuals who have neurological disorders – whether it be a condition that worsens over time, like MS or Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), or something that is more permanent, like paralysis or spina bifida – exercise is as important for maintaining health as it is for the general public, said dr. Kurt Voss, medical director of rehabilitation and wellness services at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth.
“For all the populations who are dealing with neurological disorders, it’s extremely important for them to have the opportunity and guidance in making the best of the facilities that they have and to gain and maintain what they do have,” he said.
Making the Neuro Fitness Foundation and its facility open to anyone who needs it is the goal of Connie Stauffer, the president of the nonprofit organization. She has been the president for about a year, due in part to her experience with people with disabilities (she and Griffin work for Lift-Aids Inc., a company that adapts and equips vehicles for individuals with disabilities).
A year ago, the organization was facing steeply rising rents in addition to a bad economy. The board met in order to decide what to do with organization, which would run out of money if something didn’t change, she said.
“They needed help or it needed to be shut down,” she said.
Gym members are encouraged to donate $25 per month, but no one is turned away, she said, and donations and two fund-raising events each year help keep the place running. The board decided to shut down the organization until the late fall of 2009, but then an outcry from the patrons prompted the move and re-opening to occur more quickly, she said. The total number of patrons hovers between 120 and 150 people, but a core group of about 60 or so are dedicated regulars.
Griffin, who has been involved with the organization since it started about 10 years ago, said the patrons see the facility not only as a gym but also as a community of individuals who are facing similar challenges and support each other. It’s not just a place to work out.
“I think it helps more emotionally and mentally than anything,” he said.
“And I think that’s what people need most,” added Lauderdale.
At a new location, there is room to host a once-weekly yoga class and there are plans to utilize more of the space as time goes on. Stauffer said. A casino-style Denim and Dice fund-raiser will be in the fall, and a golf tournament in the spring, to benefit the foundation, and there are always plans to continue growing. However, having the capability to pay for the facility and have experienced people on hand to assist patrons is tied to finances.
“That’s my goal, to keep this place self-sufficient,” she said.
By Elizabeth Bassett
June 2010, The Fort Worth Business Press