I have rarely thought about what it would be like to have a spinal cord injury and be dependent on others for even the simplest things, such as brushing my teeth or feeding myself. But I began to think about it after my July visit to the Claremont Club in Claremont, CA, where I saw several spinal cord injury patients working hard to improve their mobility in the Project Walk program that the Claremont Club operates.
Project Walk is a not-for-profit organization that follows the non-traditional Darzinski Method, which tries to reconnect the neurons in the brain with the muscular system below the point of injury through constant movement and weight-bearing activity-based exercise. Project Walk has trained and certified people to use its method, but earlier this year, it started franchising its program, and the Claremont Club houses that first franchise. The Be Perfect Foundation, another nonprofit, actually owns the franchise inside the Claremont Club, but Mike Alpert, CEO of the club, and his team operate the program for the foundation, which was started by quadriplegic Hal Hargrave Jr., a friend of Alpert’s daughter.
The Claremont Club has 30 clients in its program with several more on a waiting list. Many of the clients have experienced results that have surpassed their doctors’ expectations. Some of these clients have been able to walk again despite being told by doctors that they would never do so.
As amazing as those results are, I was also touched by something else that Alpert and his staff are doing. The loss of functionality that spinal cord injured people experience is a major issue, but paralysis also can make them feel like they have been “taken out of the game,” Alpert says. In many cases, they lose their cars, their homes and their jobs. They become dependent with no ability to earn an income, which can cause depression and lead to financial difficulties.
When Alpert found out that one of the program’s participants was leaving because he could not afford the weekly $100 gas bill to drive back and forth for treatment, Alpert offered the man a job as a greeter at the front desk. The job pays enough to cover the gas cost, but Alpert says the job’s greatest payoff was in lifting the man’s confidence and spirits. The result of this act shows that giving of yourself is often more satisfying that constantly being on the receiving end of the giving.
Alpert has since hired two more Project Walk clients, including one who is a storyteller in the child care program, and he plans to hire more.
Hiring clients from the program not only gives the clients confidence, but it also benefits the staff and the other members. Daily interaction with these clients breaks down the feeling of discomfort that many able-bodied people experience when seeing someone in a wheelchair. As staff and members get to know the Project Walk clients, they will see the person first rather than the disability first. They also will see that people rehabilitating from serious injuries have skills to offer society.
Alpert encourages other fitness facility operators to consider offering the Project Walk program, but if they do not have the resources to do so, the practice of opening positions to disabled people is a move that many operators could make—and the results will benefit everyone involved.
Editor's Note: Project Walk and the Be Perfect Foundation will be the recipients of sponsorship money and donations collected as part of the run/walk Club Industry is doing at 6 a.m. on Oct. 25 as part of the Club Industry conference in Chicago. You can register for the run/walk when you register online for the conference or onsite at the trade show. Register for the show and the run/walk here.