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Students volunteer skills at local YMCA

Posted on 10.09.2013

Professor of  Physical Therapy Julie Gahimer and 25 of her students lead group and individual exercises for local people with disabilities at the Baxter YMCA on Shelby Street.
The program, “Fitness Following Disability,” is not a typical service project nor a typical class assignment but it does give students perspective, according to Gahimer.
“It’s not volunteerism, and it’s not really clinical,” Gahimer said. “The students go out there as part of a class, and then they have to come back to the university and reflect on what the experience meant to them.”
Gahimer started Fitness Following Disability in 2005 and continues to lead it to this day. She got the idea for the program when she noticed the YMCA had many classes for children with disabilities, but none for adults. She brought up the idea to the wellness director, who encouraged her to proceed. Now the group meets every Thursday.
The class starts with the participants, Gahimer and the students sitting in a circle. Each person in the circle thinks of an exercise for the others to do, and everyone does 15 repetitions of the exercise.
Gahimer also thinks of a theme such as sports, cooking or housework. For example, if the theme is sports, someone may suggest hitting a baseball, and the group will pretend to swing a baseball bat. They do this for 30 minutes.
For the last half hour, the participants break up into smaller groups or split up individually with the physical therapy students. The students then help them stretch or do other exercises, such as lifting weights. Gahimer said that this not only gives the participants one-on-one time with the students, but the students also get first-hand experience.
Participants are 25 years old or older and have neurological disorders such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, Type 1 diabetes and others.
According to the World Health Organization, neurological disorders from migraines to epilepsy affect 1 billion people worldwide.
John Rigell was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1968 and realized nine years ago that there were other complications when he started to experience dizziness and other symptoms. His neurologist told him he could not return to work, so Rigell turned to the class after reading about it in a brochure.
Rigell said the class not only gives him a chance to be active but also to socialize and get out of the house. Rigell, a former teacher, also enjoys interacting with students and considers the class an opportunity to continue teaching.
“I think I’m giving back some in that I can help the students who are learning to be physical therapists,” Rigell said. “I enjoy being around young people again because I haven’t been able to teach going on nine years now.”
The participants are not the only ones who benefit from the classes. Gahimer said  that the participants teach the students as much as the students learn from them.
“They’re really special people who really seem to have a lot of purpose in their life,” she said.
Priyanka Krishnan, a physical therapy master’s student, helps lead the group exercises. She was nervous when she first came to the program but now is excited about it every week.
“We learn to be positive from them,” she said. “They’re always happy. They’re never complaining.”
Omeed Basiri, another student involved, agreed that the participants’ positive attitude is inspiring for all of them.
“They make sure that no matter what their condition is, life still goes on,”  he said.
Gahimer said that the program has given the participants a family that they see every week and can relate to on a special level. The physical therapy students learn about how small exercises can help people build their strength, endurance and flexibility and how to stay positive despite life’s challenges.
“You can’t underestimate the power of the connection and the community of people who are dealing with similar problems in their life or disabilities,” Gahimer said. “And these people are so fun and they’re so positive and they’re so upbeat and they teach the students so much.”


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