Dylan Thorne-Fitzgerald helps Deanna Cox stretch during a workout session in Carpenter Sports Building.

Yes, you can

UD students offer fitness support to adults with limited mobility

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12:20 p.m., April 19, 2011--Vickie George was an outstanding athlete. She batted .500 in intercollegiate varsity softball at Temple University and went on to play women’s major league fast pitch. She also played basketball, field hockey, and racquetball, hiked and biked, and scuba dived.

Then, at the age of 39, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS)—the progressive kind, where the symptoms worsen gradually and irreversibly.

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The kind that might make a person say, “No, I can’t.”

But Vickie George doesn’t like to say no I can’t, so she and her co-founding partner, Debora Woolwine, started an organization called Yes U Can, a community-based, staff-assisted exercise program for people with disabilities that now includes an extension program on the University of Delaware campus.

Students from the College of Health Sciences work with Yes U Can participants in the UD pool, at various local fitness clubs, and even in a converted storage closet in the basement of Carpenter Sports Building. 

Yes they can

Lauren Panchisan, a young woman who suffered a brain injury in an accident four years ago, spends three hours a week at Delaware Swim and Fitness Center working out under the guidance of senior Melissa Kilker. In a typical session, the two warm up together on side-by-side stationary bikes, watching TV on the wall-mounted screens above them just like any other gym friends might do. Although she needed a wheelchair after the accident, Panchisan can now navigate with a walker.

Her mother, Theresa, a trauma nurse, has found Yes U Can to be a bright spot in a landscape of limited resources for people in her daughter’s situation. “It has helped Lauren’s confidence tremendously to see that she can do the same things as other people,” she says.

Glenn Moore, general manager of Delaware Swim and Fitness Center, has witnessed that effect, and he notes that it works in both directions. “We often talk about the benefits of inclusion from the viewpoint of the people with disabilities,” he says. “But having Lauren and others from the Yes U Can program work out here allows our other members to see what people with disabilities can do rather than what they can’t do. We’ve all grown to a much higher level of understanding through this program.”

David Kaplan, who has Parkinson’s disease, has been exercising with the assistance of junior Evan Snyder on the UD campus. “I’m thrilled with the program,” he says. “I tell Evan about the things that are bothering me, and he does some research to get ideas for things that I can experiment with to help with those problems.” 

In return, Snyder has obtained insights into training and therapy that classroom work can’t provide. “Working with David has reinforced for me that everyone is an individual, even in the way the body adapts to exercise,” he says. “This program is incredible—it gives us the opportunity to work one-on-one with participants and gain rehab experience, and it gives them the opportunity to work out in a comfortable environment.”

And the benefits go beyond physical fitness. Senior Dylan Thorne-Fitzgerald, who is completing a practicum for the strength and conditioning minor through his work with Yes U Can, has created resistance training and stretching programs for two participants with MS. “Not only has it improved their physical health,” he says, “but it’s been a very good social experience for everyone involved.”

Carol Gajewski, who has MS and works with Thorne-Fitzgerald, says that she can now feel the activation of muscles she “forgot she had,” but even more importantly, she has fought down the fear she began to experience as her disease progressed. 

“It’s very easy when you have a disability to just cocoon yourself in the house,” she says. “But with Dylan I’ve come to realize that I’m in capable hands. The fear is gone, and I get myself out every day and go somewhere.”

It takes a village

The roots of the Yes U Can program go back to 2002, when Prof. Steve Goodwin invited George to be a guest lecturer in his health and physical education classes. She then began training Goodwin’s students to help her with exercise, as there were no facilities in the area that offered assistance to people with disabilities. In 2006, George initiated Yes U Can at the Brandywine YMCA in Wilmington, Del.

The Yes U Can Extension at UD was officially launched in 2010, when George approached Prof. Chris Knight about developing a research-oriented partnership between her organization and his lab. The two submitted a grant proposal to purchase an FES cycle, which uses functional electrical stimulation to enable people with very limited function to exercise and build muscle.

Goodwin, Knight, and George also felt the time was right to expand the program and include students in majors other than exercise science and health and physical education. 

“One of the most important things we can do in developing fitness programs for people with disabilities,” says Goodwin, “is to take a holistic approach. We have to consider not only exercise but also nutrition as well as behavioral issues. Bringing in students from these other areas has enabled us to provide additional services and expertise to Yes U Can participants while also offering this valuable experience to more students in the college.”

While waiting for approval of funding for the FES bike research, Knight turned his attention to growing the service aspect of the program. “Our students want this kind of experience so badly,” he says, “and it’s not easy for them to get it.”

Knight contacted a group of undergraduates who had expressed an interest in research and service opportunities. They were excited about being involved with Yes U Can, but Knight was pragmatic. “I told them that if they were going to build something, it had to be sustainable,” he says. “I advised them to plan on me disappearing at some point and be ready to take over. They were.”

Changing lives

One student in particular, junior Alexandra (Ali) Ferreira, was ready to take over, and she quickly emerged as a leader. Her work with Yes U Can has even helped shape her career plans. 

“Hearing Vickie’s story about her life as an athlete and her MS diagnosis and progression really impacted me,” Ferreira says. “As an active person, I can’t even begin to imagine how heart-wrenching it must have been for her to have her whole world turned upside down by this disease.”

“Working with Yes U Can has opened my eyes to the unfortunate fact that those who need exercise the most are often the ones that have no access to it,” she adds. “I live on a college campus, and I can take a walk whenever I want to. I go to a gym every day where students are healthy. I never once thought about disabled individuals needing or benefiting from exercise. Now I know that after I graduate, I want to do something where I can use my energy and my passion to help create a healthy lifestyle for this underrepresented population.” 

Perhaps the greatest contribution George has made to the UD students is the gift of herself as a role model. She is fond of saying that she may have MS, but it doesn’t have her. She is also convinced that her ongoing exercise regimen has slowed the progression of her disease and kept her emotionally and physically fit. As a quadriplegic, she can still, with assistance, leg press 200 pounds, do standing pushups, ski, and ride a horse.

But George sees the gift exchange as mutual. “The University has saved me, and I know it’s going to save a lot of other people through this program,” she says. “The socialization gained by people who have been isolated in their homes without the ability to get out and exercise is priceless.”

“A big part of this program,” she adds, “is our focus on providing an environment where participants feel comfortable and welcome in getting started on a fitness program. The staff and students in Yes U Can have all been educated about how important it is to develop that relationship through open communication.”

George’s goal now is to take the program statewide, involving other academic institutions and fitness facilities. “It’s great to know that our program is so popular we have a waiting list,” she says. “But no one who wants this experience should have to wait for it. It should be available to all who can benefit from it.”

About the UD Team

Steve Goodwin is an associate professor in UD’s Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition. Chris Knight is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology (KAAP). Jeff Schneider, a clinical instructor in KAAP, coordinates the strength and conditioning minor. Evan Snyder, Dylan Thorne-Fitzgerald, and Ali Ferraira are exercise science majors. Melissa Kilker is a health behavior science major. Most of the students are involved through the exercise science, nutrition and dietetics, and health and physical education majors clubs. Kilker is participating through an academic internship.

About Yes U Can

The Yes U Can Corporation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Its mission is to increase inclusion, awareness and access to health, recreation and physical fitness opportunities for people with limited mobility and disabilities.

The organization provides a series of staff-assisted group and individual exercise and weight-training programs geared towards that population. Yes U Can breaks the disability barrier and provides hands-on or standby assistance so that most ability levels can participate. Programs currently offered include Sit and Be Fit, Chair Yoga, and individualized weight training.

For more information about Yes U Can, contact Vickie George at 302.286.1399 or info@yesyoucanusa.com or visit the website.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Evan Krape and Doug Baker

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