by Sasha Reddy
It is a Friday night at HAC. Warm greetings and hugs are exchanged as people join the growing assembly in the HAC lobby. To the left of the door, those filtering into the building stop by to sign-in; to the right people are chatting and catching up with the events of the week. This is what HAC looks like at 6:45pm on a typical Friday evening; it’s been this way since 2012 when the Community Fitness Fridays (CFF) program was born. The program serves dozens of people with a variety of intellectual disabilities as an avenue to get active, socialize with other members of the community and, for many, train for the Delaware Special Olympics. The crowded lobby consists of those participating in the program, their parents, and a host of volunteers.
The Team that Makes it Happen
Kristi Leigh-Morgan, a former personal trainer at Hockessin Athletic Club, founded Community Fitness Fridays in 2013. She and her husband John dutifully lead the program and even welcomed its participants to their home for annual parties year after year. Then in December of 2018, Kristi and John announced that they would be moving out of state the following year. While excited for the two, the parents and volunteers of CFF couldn’t help but worry about whether they would be able to find new leadership to keep the program alive. It was a relief to all when new HAC Personal Trainer and long-term volunteer, Eric Neil, agreed to take over management of the program.
Eric’s history with Community Fitness Fridays runs as long as the program has existed. Prior to joining the HAC team, Eric helped with strength training and equipment set up at the Special Olympic games at the University of Delaware. That’s where he met Kristi Leigh Morgan and learned about the new special Olympics training program she was introducing at HAC. Kristi asked Eric if he’d like to come by and help set up equipment and spot the weight-lifting athletes, and he agreed to give it a try. When Eric first started volunteering, he was a lot more reserved and a lot less comfortable in the environment, but in time he experienced as much personal growth as he saw in the program itself. Within two years of volunteering, he became the go-to guy for facilitating warm-ups with the athletes. Not long after that, he took over the power-lifting portion of CFF, too. In fact, Community Fitness Fridays played a big part in Eric’s decision to apply for a personal training position at HAC earlier in 2019. When Kristi made the bittersweet announcement that she would be leaving the program, Eric became determined to do whatever he had to to keep it running.
The rest of the CFF crew gladly welcomed Eric to his new leadership role. Since taking over, he’s worked closely with Robin Reinecke, a volunteer for the past six years, and Rosemarie Peoples, mother of HAC’s general manager and volunteer for the past four years. Robin and Rosemarie help set up at the beginning of CFF, rotating the different circuit training stations set up for athletes every week. They also work together to train new volunteers on how to use the equipment, assist the athletes at each training station, and even organize birthday celebrations for the athletes every month among other responsibilities. Rose and Robin have become experts on helping immerse new athletes into the environment and rid them of “jitters and nerves” during their first few weeks. “[The athletes] look forward to coming here on a Friday night,” Robin says. “And we try to make it fun” Rose chimes in.
Friday Night Fun
Community Fitness Fridays usually start with a warm-up. On warm summer nights, the athletes walk together around a section of Tweed’s Trail to prepare for the evening’s activities. When it’s cold out or the weather is not ideal, they head up to Group Fitness Studio 1. Here, volunteers and athletes group up to get moving. Eric guides the mass of people through a few stretches followed by laps of shuffles, bear crawls, or other movements up and down the studio. Volunteers and participants alike are all smiles through the sweat.
Once warm-ups are done, the groups split up and everyone navigates to their area of choice for the evening. Program participants can choose between power-lifting in the downstairs weight room, lap-swimming in the lap pool or, the most popular option, circuit training in the personal training studio. “The athletes all know where to go [and] how to use the equipment,” Eric says. Most long-term participants, especially the Special Olympians in training, stick to the same areas from week-to-week – this helps the athletes build competence and confidence and allows volunteers to more easily assist them.
Regardless of the level of familiarity, a participant has with the club and equipment, safety is always a priority. Every exercise is set up and monitored by watchful volunteers that stay right alongside the athletes as they train. “[Circuit-training] is all controlled weight-wise by how we set it up,” Eric says. Most of the exercises in the circuit are bodyweight-based; those that do involve switching weights and adding plates are well-supervised so as to prevent improper or unsafe use of the equipment. In the weight-room, Eric is responsible for facilitating safe workouts. “I’m the one putting the weights on and progressing [the athletes] through”. Not to mention that any participant who wishes to try power-lifting requires the approval of Eric and their parent. Precautions are taken at every step of the way every Friday night to ensure an all-around positive experience.
Putting the “Community” in Community Fitness Fridays
Community Fitness Fridays provide athletes with much more than an opportunity to work out. Most participants get just as much social benefit from the program as they do physical. Eric says that when participants get to make their own choices – even if it’s just between rower or resistance bands – it builds their confidence. He, Rosemarie, Robin, and many other volunteers have witnessed even the most reserved athletes come further and further out of their shells with every week they’ve attended. And that growth comes from interacting with not just the volunteers but the other participants in the program, too. “They have this community with each other where they don’t see each other as having disabilities,” Eric says. It’s a chance to chat and interact with people who have similar experiences and struggles. With them, CFF is not about overcoming a disability. It’s just about meeting up with friends to work out and have fun.
The program gives parents some well-deserved weekly respite, too. While athletes are training, some parents take their time to run errands outside of the club, others stay to work out, and many hang out in the lobby to chat with the other parents and caregivers. As Eric puts it, only a special needs parent truly understands the challenges that come with caring for a special needs child. Providing a space where they can socialize with and ask questions of a community of other special needs parents or do other necessary tasks independently is significantly helpful to them.
Community Fitness Fridays are a wonderful place to see HAC’s core values of community, energy, and compassion at work. Eric, Robin, Rosemarie, and dozens of other volunteers can all attest to the beautiful personal transformations they’ve undergone because of it. The strong relationships they’ve built amongst each other and with the participants and parents are invaluable, and the athletes look forward to seeing their same faces each week. “It’s worth giving up my Friday nights to be here,” Robin says. Eric concurs. “ The program grew me, too. I think that’s pretty cool.”
HAC is always on the lookout for new Community Fitness Fridays volunteers. If you are interested in learning more, contact Fitness Director Maria Crennan at email@example.com.