Breaking Barriers: FitLink Connects Central PA Residents with Intellectual Disabilities to Fitness and Wellness Classes

Dr. Jonna Belanger leads a FitLink class in which she connects with the participants online. (Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert)

They watch the commercials, receive random social media posts, and have images of fitness on their faces all the time, especially after the holidays. “Go to our gym, pay for our wellness plan, be happy and fit.” But what if you want to be active but nothing you see meets your needs, or you feel left out?

In the fall of his senior year at Penn State in 2019, Jacob Corey saw a gap between fitness and wellness opportunities and access for people with intellectual disabilities. Sure, there were fitness centers, classes, and wellness information, but there wasn’t access for those who needed more customized formats. It was then that Corey decided to do something: he started the process of creating FitLink, an inclusive wellness community aimed at people with intellectual disabilities and their loved ones.

FitLink offers weekly free customized group fitness classes (currently online) for all ages and abilities, including dance, yoga, custom workouts, and more. Wellness seminars; and the opportunity for people to connect, which so many are missing during the time of COVID.

“We want to fill this gap in health equality because there are a multitude of health options currently available, but many of them are not as comprehensive as they could be for anyone with a disability. In this way, we’re trying to increase inclusivity to promote empowerment and community health in the community for people with intellectual disabilities, ”said Corey, 23.

After considering the original idea, Corey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Penn State in 2020 and is now a PhD student at the University of Delaware. He was connected to Alexis “Lexi” Baublitz, who is now a senior at Penn State with a focus on kinesiology.

“I’ve never worked with this population before, so I thought I would just step out there and leave my comfort zone,” says 23-year-old Baublitz from York. “I love helping people. When Jacob came to me, I said, ‘Of course I would like to try something new.'”

The two started their work in late 2019 and asked Dr. Jonna Belanger, Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State and National Paralympic Athletics Classifier, to help create FitLink. Belanger’s research interests focused on improving the sporting opportunities for youth with disabilities in interscholastic sport.

“I thought this might give Penn State students an opportunity to work with people with disabilities and help them program classes for them,” says Corey. “I thought if we graduate students who are supposed to be experts, and that’s their graduation, if they don’t have experience working with people with different disabilities we can’t expect them to try and make changes in health equity that we currently have in the United States because they don’t have the confidence or experience to even know this is a problem. It is one of those things where ignorance is bliss. “

After discussing FitLink’s mission, the three were able to easily connect with LifeLink in Penn State, offering students with special needs ages 18-21 in the State College Area School District the opportunity to be in a setting with students their age to interact socially and academically conducive to continued growth.

The first FitLink class took place in mid-January 2020. All classes were in person prior to the first round of COVID shutdowns.

“With everything moving online, we wondered if this was something we could keep doing and wondered how we could do adaptive fitness online,” says Corey. “We took a week off to find out, and honestly, although there was its downside to being online, we managed to attract a lot more students (now a dedicated group of around 10 students). When you go online, as an instructor, you are rethinking how you actually teach. “

FitLink courses were held in person before going online after the pandemic shut down.

Big plans ahead

In spring 2021, the courses will take place Wednesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Participants can register online at happyvalleyfitlink.wixsite.com/happyvalleyfitlink. There you can also read more about FitLink and see different options.

Belanger says she takes pride in her students and the desire to provide the service they need, and points out big plans for FitLink.

“We really want it to be a community program and an interaction with this city and this dress,” she says. “We want it to be community-based and community-oriented. We plan to expand outside of the State College area and hope to see an establishment and a mix of in-person and online offerings this fall. “

Belanger describes central Pennsylvania as a “black hole” for fitness, exercise or recreation-related services for people with disabilities.

“There are minimal things that happen even before the pandemic so I can’t imagine what will happen after the pandemic and what will be lost after being unable to interact or raise funds for a year “, she says. “Hopefully [FitLink] can be a shining place in the middle of Pennsylvania. “

Plans also include making FitLink a nonprofit, addressing physical disabilities, and connecting with the visually impaired, hard of hearing, and deaf communities.

“The most important thing I talk to my students about is the language and how to talk to a person and what disability itself means and helps them move away from that concept of others,” says Belanger. “You are a person. We are people like them, only some of us do things differently. It’s just a matter of removing that box. I hope FitLink breaks down these barriers – that is our hope. “

When asked what they like about FitLink, it is difficult to pick just one thing.

“We all want to be in FitLink because we all want to get in shape and enjoy doing exercises,” says Lexi Albert. “It was so much fun. We even have dance parties there. “

Albert says her favorite part of FitLink is hanging out with friends – and she particularly enjoys days when they can do yoga poses, especially kids’ poses.

Christopher Nguyen smiles big as he describes his favorite exercises.

“We can do push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and more,” he says.

Matthew Biek enjoys butterfly poses and says if he had to describe FitLink to someone he would highlight one word: fun.

“I would describe it as training with your friends,” he says.

For more information about FitLink, visit happyvalleyfitlink.wixsite.com/happyvalleyfitlink.

This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Town & Gown

Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer at State College and director of the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Office at Juniata College.

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