Jon was two days old when he came home from the hospital to his foster family. Dianne Dennis was already parenting Jon’s older sister and a second daughter. At the time, her husband, Brad, was deployed as a Navy Reservist in Kuwait.
From an early age, Jon was a laid-back child, Brad and Dianne recalled. “He slept through the night at six weeks and was walking before his first birthday.”
But, Dianne’s mother was the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right with her grandson. “He wasn’t responding the way you’d expect a child his age to react,” said Dianne. “You could tell when he was little, the way he held his hands; clenched and kind of turned. And it was all the time. We noticed a weakness in his muscles for grabbing and walking. When he should have started talking, he just made sounds. It was very hard to understand. He wasn’t getting past baby talk. A lot of times, he’d just give a vacant stare when you’d talk to him. He wasn’t getting it.”
After Brad got home from his deployment, he made a difficult decision. “I didn’t reenlist. I missed my oldest daughter’s first day at kindergarten. I missed her fifth birthday. Trying to reestablish a relationship with young kids is tough. And I was seeing the problems with Jon’s development.”
Parents in the Dennises situation can easily be overwhelmed by the complex system to support their children’s development. Service Access and Management (SAM) is a local organization that helps people navigate it. Representatives from SAM came out to evaluate Jon. His case workers determined he needed Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapy. Jon went to the Berks County Intermediate Unit (BCIU) four days a week until he started kindergarten. He wasn’t making great strides, but he was still able to start Gov. Mifflin Elementary full-time by first grade.
Brad continued, “Throughout his childhood, Jon had extremely weak hands and arms. He was tripping and falling. He couldn’t pick anything up other than light stuff. He couldn’t cut up his own food. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. He always had a drive to do things. He’d get angry because he couldn’t do different things that he wanted to do. When we’d step in and try to help him, he’d get mad. But he couldn’t do it on his own. We’d go walking and he’d fall, every time, due to weakness in his legs and feet. If we went to a wooded path, I’d gauge the difficulty on how many times he fell.”
Brad works with Gretchen Kaag, spouse of Chris Kaag, IM ABLE’s Founder and CEO. She was the first person to recommend IM ABLE’s IM FIT Inclusive Group Fitness Program for kids and young adults of all abilities. Because of his challenges with speaking, Jon is hesitant to go to new places unless he knows someone. “It got to the point that we’d seen it on Facebook, I’d talked to Gretchen about it, and I finally said to Dianne, ‘let’s try it out.’ When we found out that one of Jon’s friends from Mifflin started going, it made it easier for him to go.”
Jon immediately loved the social aspect of IM FIT. “The one thing I really love about IM FIT is that everyone is really supportive, kids, parents, volunteers. Everyone,” said Brad. After just a few weeks, Jon was already ready for the next challenge. IM ABLE shares a facility with a CrossFit gym and had recently added an Adaptive CrossFit program on Monday nights. Jon joined the class. “That’s when we really started noticing the difference in his physicality,” said Brad. “He’s definitely much stronger. He’s been cutting his food up. We were playing around and I tried to pull a toy out of his hand and I couldn’t do it. It used to be that you could barely feel it when he’d grab you, but not anymore.”
Adaptive CrossFit classes are led by Sara Mider and Becky Stitzel: “One of the reasons Becky and I love teaching the Adaptive Fitness class is to enable accessible and inclusive fitness training for everyone, regardless of ability. Many times, people with disabilities think they can’t do the things that they see able-bodied athletes doing. One of the most rewarding things is seeing their mindset change as they grow and progress in their athleticism and hit goals they set for themselves.”
“The athletes who have participated in the Adaptive Fitness classes have made tremendous strides in their overall fitness in the time that we have worked with them,” said Becky. “Additionally, their coordination, self-confidence and ability to perform everyday tasks have improved as well. This program serves to fill an important role to the adaptive community by meeting them where they are with their fitness and helping them to progress to their goals.”
Sara explained, “This program is offered to any physically or mentally adaptive adult or older teenager. It is more intense than the IM FIT program so we expect that interested people are first vetted by someone from the Adaptive Fitness program for compatibility. Participants are expected to be able to follow instructions independently, have a strong desire to continually improve their fitness and want to work hard every week. It is recommended also to observe and also attend a class prior to enrolling. There is a fee associated with the Adaptive Fitness classes.”
“Jon loves Sara and Becky,” said Brad. “When he does things during the week, he can’t wait to tell them. They’re great. They don’t take any excuses. It’s just what he needs. I lost track of the number of times she [Sara] said, ‘I’ll get him to smile.’”
“He carried in a 40 lb box of dog food through the house into the garage,” said Dianne. “That is something he’d never done before. He’s starting to come out his shell. That’s important. The teachers at school noticed a difference.”
“The biggest thing is that we’ve seen such a change in him,” Brad said as Dianne nodded in agreement. “Before, he wouldn’t go two feet from us. I used to hate walking with him, because he’d get his legs all tripped up in mine. This summer was the first time we went on vacation and we didn’t have to be constantly helping him do things. He helped us! This was the first time he went into the lake by himself. He’s just gained so much confidence. He was walking in the woods and went off the trail. It is stuff normal kids do. Jumping on stuff, jumping over stuff.”
“We would never be able to do the physical training on our own,” said Brad. “We’re Mom and Dad. This kind of thing doesn’t exist elsewhere and we’re excited to see how he progresses and grows over time. That’s the number one goal as a parent. One fear is what’s going to happen when we’re not here. IM ABLE has helped him to become more independent. The fact that our son can follow instructions, he can do things independently, he can work in a group, he’s willing to do new things without Mom and Dad, that’s important. It means the world.”
Our generous donors and volunteers made this possible and we can’t thank them enough.