Norah Schneider sits in a wheelchair most of her day, a paraplegic as the result of a car accident, but Norah's life is anything but sedentary. Not only is she part owner of a cedar log home company, but she also is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, a group of 150 paraplegics who play basketball and rugby on a competitive level.

Unfortunately, Norah and her teammates have nowhere to go for their physical training. In fact, other than rehabilitation facilities, she knows of no privately funded health clubs for physically disabled individuals. But, if Norah, her Pittsburgh Steelwheeler teammates and others in the Pittsburgh area have their way, they won't be without a practice facility or health club for long — and neither will any physically or mentally handicapped person in their area.

The Steelwheelers have set into motion a plan to build a privately funded health club for all mentally and physically disabled individuals. The group has already been promised land for the facility by a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of mentally disabled persons. The group has formed committees to raise funds and look into equipment. Preliminary blueprints have been drawn. Fundraising is in its early stage. So far, response to the idea has been overwhelmingly positive, says Norah, who is vice president of the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers.

A facility for the disabled is needed in this community, Norah says, to allow the disabled to come together, socialize and exercise.

“The friendships and camaraderie I've developed through the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers has been invaluable,” Norah says. “It's something that I cherish very much. To have an actual facility that people can come to and develop bonds is instrumental in anyone's life with a disability.”

The facility will have equipment for the disabled and able-bodied, rooms for group exercise, three NBA-size basketball courts (that double as rugby and volleyball courts), a track, a café, a kitchen, a social area, locker rooms, bathrooms and offices designed for the disabled and group exercise programs including a martial arts program.

The club will be one level with entry to the locker rooms, main gym and the fitness area easily accessible. Eventually, a second story may be added for storage and offices, in which case an elevator will be added. A swimming pool and tennis courts may come in phase two of the project.

IT TAKES MONEY

To construct this facility, the group needs to raise $2.5 million. Prominent members of the community were invited to join a fundraising committee, which has just begun its efforts.

“It is important to us that we gather people who could make this happen,” says Norah. “We went after influential, high-powered people to help us. We were very picky.”

Paul Schneider, Norah's father, heads the fundraising committee. Along with his wife, Lynda, he is also a board member for the Pittsburgh Steel Wheelers. Paul expects to raise the money within a year from the public and from corporations. Construction of the 36,000-square-foot facility will follow with a projected opening date of spring 2005.

Paul is not concerned about the fundraising goal.

“I think there is plenty of money out there when you think about it,” says Paul. “This is a one-shot deal. Once we raise the money, we won't be raising it anymore. It's not like a telethon where it's done every year.”

Once the club has been built, the complex will be maintained through members' monthly fees and corporate donations for facility maintenance. The logistics about exactly how much the club will charge for membership haven't been ironed out yet, but no one will be turned away from the club for inability to afford the membership fee, say Paul and Norah. Individuals will be invited to sponsor those who can't afford the membership.

IF YOU BUILD IT…

“If you build it, they will come” may not be far from the truth when it comes to this facility. The area surrounding the future club certainly is not lacking in disabled individuals. A demographic study of the area found that in the three counties near the proposed complex site, which will be 15 minutes north of Pittsburgh, there are 255,000 disabled people over the age of 5.

“If all we do is draw from those counties, we'll be packed,” says Paul. “You've got this gigantic demographic that's never been touched. People get kicked out of rehab faster because insurance doesn't pay…They don't have anywhere to go. This facility will allow them to come out of rehab and physical therapy and have a place to work out. It's something that the disabled community needs.”

The complex will be located on the border of two of the three counties in the demographic study. The commute will be eased by access to a county transportation system that many area disabled individuals already use.

“Just think about all the disabled groups out there and the possibilities,” Paul says about membership, which could include veterans, people with spina bifida, blind individuals, those with cerebral palsy and others. In addition, family members of the disabled members will also be able to work out at the facility. For that reason, some of the equipment will be geared to the able-bodied while the rest of the equipment will be geared specifically to those with disabilities.

Paul expects to see the new facility packed based on all the interest he has already received from groups representing disabled individuals.

Whether this club is successful or not won't be predicated strictly on its finances and its membership numbers, says Frank Ancharski, member of the fundraising committee for the Steelwheeler Athletic Complex. Instead, success will be based on whether the facility is functioning well for the members who are there. The club must make good business decisions, but the underlying current is the people involved in the club and the desire to make a difference in the lives of those who have had some difficulties, Ancharski says.

Ancharski has been in the health club industry for 20 years. He is general manager at the Oxford Athletic Club, a 140,000 square-foot multipurpose health club in Wexford, PA (a suburb of Pittsburgh). Back in the late 1980s, he considered putting together a facility similar to the Steelwheeler Athletic Complex, so when the Steelwheelers approached him to be on the committee for their facility, he jumped at the chance.

Ancharski is on two subcommittees. One is the sponsorship committee to find companies that will donate services or sponsor portions of the facility, such as the scoreboards, end lines or center court of the basketball courts. The other committee is the exercise equipment selection committee, which is looking at equipment manufacturers for the able-bodied and disabled exercise equipment.

“It's an opportunity to give back,” Ancharski says about his involvement with the Steelwheeler facility. “I can take my experience and skills and all the mistakes that I made and share that with them.”

One of the top priorities at the club is to rely on the experience and skills of the disabled to staff the club, providing employment opportunities for the disabled and an automatic empathy from staff toward members.

“The persons with the disability will have a better understanding of running a facility for people with disabilities,” says Norah. “You may think you know what it's like to use equipment with a disability, but unless you actually have one, it's hard to do that. Because this is a facility for persons with disabilities, we feel it is important to hire people with disabilities. That also opens up money for grants.”

Besides, Paul says, the group knows a large number of disabled individuals who are well trained to work in this area. “It's just a matter of pulling them into the system,” he says.

ADVICE

Those involved in this project hope that their club will be a model for future clubs like it throughout the country.

“We hope our facility helps spawn a birth of these types of facilities across the country,” Norah says.

Those clubs will need a core team to get it going, says Ancharski.

“When you have volunteers helping put this together and you compete with their real jobs, their family commitments and other worthy causes, it is going to take longer [to get the facility built],” Ancharski says. “You need a core team to get this together…They'll have to have a higher purpose to get through these time constraints and money constraints.”

The Pittsburgh Steelwheelers already have that core team in the Schneiders, Ancharski and the other volunteers who are donating their time and skills to getting this project rolling along so that the disabled in this community have a place to go to keep fit.

“The most important thing in the world is that they don't feel out of place,” Paul says about the planned facility. “Everybody will feel the same in here whether they have a disability or not.”

To inquire about equipment, staffing or donation of time to the project, contact Frank Ancharski at 724-933-1911 ext. 105 or by e-mail at fancharski@oxford-pgh.com or fancharski@oxfordathleticclub.com.

To inquire about donations of money, go to the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers Web site at www.steelwheelers.org or call 800.930.I CAN (4226).