“My husband Jason has taken Robert to Planet Fitness a few times, hoping he would be able to come along regularly,” said Jennifer DiBona. “That was the idea…he went maybe three times. It was like pulling teeth. There was no one else there with a physical disability so it was intimidating.”
Robert, Jennifer’s son, has cerebral palsy. He’s 19 years old and loves the Philadelphia sports teams, hot wings, and anchovy pizza. He always wanted to be in the armed forces. Both of Robert’s grandfathers served in Vietnam and they shared the hardships of service. “He even went to a recruiter,” said Jennifer. “It was painful. He asked if there was a special process, if it was physically possible for him to do it. They said ‘No.’”
Robert heard of IM ABLE’s adaptive fitness classes, IM FIT, through BCIU’s Transition House Program in Birdsboro which assists high school seniors with mild-to-moderate disabilities transition from the familiar environment of high school to employment and independent living.
“I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to go,” said Robert. “You didn’t want to go,” his mother recalled more precisely. “But,” Robert continued, “the first time there, I met Chris [Kaag, Founder and Executive Director of the IM ABLE Foundation and a Marine Veteran]. It was easier to relate to him.” Jennifer clarified, “Chris owns the gym and is in a chair. It means the world to Robert.”
The IM FIT adaptive fitness classes run for 8 weeks per session, one hour on Tuesday and Thursday nights. When they were first offered, there was a small fee to participate and there was a group of about six or eight kids who came out, warmed up, and rotated through exercise stations. Volunteers and interns from Penn State Berks and Alvernia’s Occupational Therapy programs worked with individuals or small groups to adapt the exercises to their individual needs. A grant from United Way of Berks County, a leadership gift from Marty Stallone, a sponsorship from Orthopaedic Associates of Reading, and a bunch of individual donors made it possible for us to provide the program at no charge to the participants. Laughter grew to fill the room with 40 to 60 participants per week now and new faces for every class. Each class ends in a dance party ensuring everyone leaves with a smile.
Robert’s condition requires him to use a walker. “I was having trouble keeping up with the transitions,” he recalled. “Getting from station to station took too long.” So Chris was thinking about pairing him up with someone, one-on-one, who could work out with Robert. Jennifer laughed, “At first, Chris expected me to do it. That’s just what an 18-year-old man wants, to go to the gym with his mom. I was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”
Chris went back to the drawing board and recalled a chance meeting with Alan Coderre at a Reading Fightin’ Phils game the summer prior. Alan spent eight years as a Marine overseas. He works on diesel trucks for a living now. He and his wife Vanessa have three children ages 10, 8 and 6. “I struggle in crowds,” said Alan, recounting that evening. “It was Classic Harley night and I got in before the crowds. As it got busier, I was struggling real bad and left. Chris was there and pulled me aside and asked why I was leaving. It was embarrassing for me to admit. I didn’t know how else to put it.
It was PTSD.”
“Chris texted me later about Robert. At first, I was like, ‘no.’” Not one to be deterred, Chris kept after Alan. “He called and explained what he wanted to do and I agreed. The first time I did it, I worked Robert out. But I thought about it a bit after and said, ‘I’m working you out, so next time, you work me out too.’ Man, Robert broke me off so bad. I was on the floor gasping.” Robert’s smile was from ear to ear, “people in the military are super strong. At first I wondered how I could be motivating to Alan? Now, I push him. I say ‘come on, let’s go!’”
What came out of this relationship was the basis for Operation Lead from the Front. There are adaptive athletes like Robert out there in need of exercise. In addition to the lack of adaptive equipment and awareness of how to handle people with disabilities in most gyms, The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that obesity rates are higher among children and considerably higher in adults with disabilities. This puts them at risk for additional health risks. There are veterans in this community in need of a new mission now that they are no longer in active service. Connecting them forms a mutually beneficial relationship, empowering and lifting them both up.
Jennifer sees the difference in her son. “For me, it’s not just Robert going to work out at a fitness place. For my son, connecting with a veteran…that’s huge. I can’t imagine what Alan went through. He was up front with us about his challenges but he doesn’t stay there. It’s all, ‘come on Robert, let’s go!’” Robert agrees, “I can’t be in the armed forces because I’m physically disabled. Interacting with Alan, I’m having an impact on veterans. I have a high respect for someone who has served.”
The relationship between Alan and Robert extends beyond the gym. Robert graduated from high school this summer and Alan was there despite the challenge that the large group posed. It was an extra emotional time as Alan had just lost his dog. “They were training him to be my service dog, a chocolate lab puppy and he got hit by a car. I got to Robert’s house and he’s got a chocolate lab. I must have played with that dog for two hours.”
“That kid right there, he changed my life,” said Alan. “He’s stronger than I am. He wants to be the hardest working man in the room. If he can do what he’s doing with what he’s got, why can’t I? It’s something I look forward to all week. I’m my own worst enemy. I beat myself up. One of my issues, they call it mind-reading. I imagine that other people are saying things about me. I start to sweat, my heart races. I can’t stop it. When he’s working me out and I’m working him out, it’s the weight of a house lifted off my shoulders. It eases my mind. My wife says I’m in such a better mood after working out with Robert. I tell Robert he’s not allowed to call it a disability. It’s a gift.”
Our generous donors and volunteers made this possible and we can’t thank them enough.
Operation Lead from the Front needs your help. Our goal is to make additional connections this year. Donate to the IM ABLE Foundation today. Thank you.
Join Operation Lead from the Front. Donate now.