JCC offers classes tailored for people with developmental disabilities

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Nancy Itzkowitz teaches four fitness classes at the Jewish Community Center and loves her job, but there is one class that’s truly special.

“I feel awesome when I get done every Wednesday,” she said.

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Her Wednesday session is an exercise class geared towards people with developmental disabilities. It is one part of the JCC’s, “Fit for Life” and “Unique Strength” programs, which are themselves subsumed under the far-reaching Inclusion Program, designed to help boost fitness, friendship and social activity among those dealing with such challenges as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other physical and developmental disorders.

Itzkowitz, who has been at the J for a decade, has been teaching the aerobics class for about a year. However, the J recently expanded its educational offerings by including a similar cardio/weights class taught by trainer Jill Grossman. Grossman also offers personal one-on-one training. Sometimes that requires attention to the special needs of those she helps. For instance, she said she generally avoids free weights to reduce the risk of injury to her clients.

“They have a poor range of motion and a high threshold of pain as well as poor muscle tone,” she said. “So I stay with the circuit weights and then shoot for a half an hour of cardio where they can do the treadmill or a bike. I’ve had a few do the arc trainer or the elliptical.”

Proper diet is another aspect of the program, which has a policy of no junk food during sessions. Itzkowitz said she allows nothing but water during class. Grossman also stresses diet as a key part of fitness.

“They gain muscle strength,” Grossman said. “Most of them have very poor muscle tone. They gain stamina. We talk about healthy eating and healthy drinks.”

Grossman said most of the 24 clients she handles in one-on-one sessions are long-term. One of them has been with the program for 12 years. While the classes can usually accommodate new arrivals, there is generally a waiting list for her individual training sessions.

“I’ve had some [clients] for quite awhile,” she said. “Once they get in, the parents and family start to see the changes. They’re pretty impressed and they stay.”

But it’s more than just diet and exercise that make the program so valuable. There is also a social aspect.

“You’re always dealing with physical issues but in a class you’re also dealing with being in a social setting, interacting with people, even listening to directions,” said David Weiner, who has been coordinator of the Inclusion Program since the summer. “Nancy’s talked about some of the improvements that she’s seen among the participants, being able to pay attention, being able listen to directions.”

Both Itzkowitz and Grossman agree, noting that the most rewarding aspects of their jobs aren’t just tracking physical improvement.

“There are gains that you can’t see,” Grossman said. “They gain self-confidence and become more social — even in their day-to-day lives, it’s making a difference.”

The Inclusion Program also covers more than just fitness. A Sunday Friendship social group meets two Sundays a month and offers recreational activities such as a Six Flags excursion, lunch at the Spaghetti Factory or shopping. “We’ll do social skill building by having a game day, Weiner explained. “We’ll play bingo or have a Hanukkah party.”

There is also a teen transitions group that helps out at the Jewish Food Pantry, sorting food once a month.

“It’s more of a vocational-type program targeted at folks who are looking at graduating high school and want to transition out of a more supportive setting into one that is more independent,” Weiner said.

A day camp program for children pairs 5-to 12-year-olds with “shadows,” who can help facilitate their integration with the other campers. New camp programs for older participants are planned for this summer.

“There will be more recreational stuff,” he said. “We’ll probably go to Grant’s Farm or some of the museums.”

In addition, the Inclusion Program’s “Theatre Unlimited” has already started rehearsals for a musical to be performed with 50 cast members in March.

Some of the programs and services are free. Others involve small activity fees, but Weiner said that the JCC works on a sliding scale for those in need. The Inclusion Program is run through the auspices of the JCC with primary funding from the Productive Living Board. Other grants and private donations also support the program.

Weiner said that the economic crisis impacting the nation has been a challenge but programming has continued without a great deal of financial strain.

“It hasn’t been too much of a cutback,” he said. “There have been a couple of individual donations, a few thousand dollars here or there [lost] because of the economy. The majority of our funding is still intact.”

For more information about participating in or donating to the program, call David Weiner at 314-442-3295 or e-mail to [email protected]

As Itzkowitz notes, it’s not just the participants who find the program rewarding.

“I get more out of teaching them than I do out of any other class here,” she said.