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Dec. 14, 2021
By Angelique James and Alexis Finc
Every Sunday afternoon, a group of Virginia Commonwealth University students gather on the large outdoor soccer field at the Sports Center of Richmond. They arrive early, attentively setting up exercise stations with colorful cones, balls and ropes, readying the field for the arrival of their workout buddies, members of the nonprofit Jacob’s Chance.
Jacob’s Chance is an organization aimed at enriching the lives of children and young adults with disabilities through various activities, social experiences, education and skills training. For the past three years, the organization has partnered with VCU’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences to implement an exercise and health program called Inclusive Fitness and Health. As many as 15 VCU students take part in the program each week, either as volunteers or student interns completing credit toward required clinical experiences, which allows students to expand, develop and connect the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom within a professional setting.
When the buddies arrive, the enthusiasm is palpable. Students are paired up and work with their buddies through the different stations, which can be modified according to their buddy’s abilities. Over the course of an hour and a half, the soccer field is awash in activity and laughter.
Frances Rehrer, a senior double majoring in biology and exercise science, is one of the interns on hand every week.
“This program really opened my eyes to the enthusiasm that you need to have in helping someone with just a little bit more consideration, which they deserve,” Rehrer said.
The collaboration between VCU and Jacob’s Chance began when Matthew Scott, an assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences, first learned about the organization through a friend. He teamed up with Jacob’s Chance to offer soccer lessons, but quickly realized that his own students would benefit from working with the organization’s community. He modeled the program off his past experience with Overcoming Barriers, a similar mentorship program at James Madison University.
“Overcoming Barriers really inspired me. It showed me that there’s a real need for more fitness and health opportunities for these populations. And when I came to VCU and started teaching here, I realized, while there are some great programs in the Richmond area, there’s not enough of them,” Scott said.
Although there are many gyms in the Richmond area, Scott felt that people with disabilities were often overlooked when it came to physical fitness and public health initiatives.
“Everybody has the right to be physically active and understand more about their own health, to try to make changes. Unfortunately, I think we look at exercise as one of those things that most people can access, when in reality our fitness culture is not set up for accommodating disabilities,” Scott said.
“The Inclusive Fitness and Health Program has changed the way our participants view fitness and encourages them to live healthier lives,” said Kate Mardigian, executive director of Jacob’s Chance. “IFH has been one of our most popular programs since the beginning, and it’s inspiring to watch our friends gain confidence as they create and meet their individual health goals.”
With the program, buddies have the opportunity to build independence and get in a great workout while also having a fun one-on-one experience with interns and volunteers. And the buddies aren’t the only ones benefiting from the partnership. The program gives VCU students firsthand experience teaching exercise and health programming.
“I teach my interns how to develop these types of programs,” Scott said. “They have an active role by helping facilitate all aspects of IFH. This gives them the hands-on experience of running the program and taking their buddies through a planned fitness and health session.”
Everybody has the right to be physically active and understand more about their own health, to try to make changes. Unfortunately, I think we look at exercise as one of those things that most people can access, when in reality our fitness culture is not set up for accommodating disabilities.
Before working with the buddies, student interns go through training with literature and vocabulary.
“They spend a good amount of time looking into the types of disabilities that we see with IFH. Like what is autism? What is Down syndrome? And then they’re also looking into the literature to identify some of the physical limitations of those disabilities. What are some of the health and lifestyle limitations that are out there so that we can address those within the scope of the program?” Scott said.
Rehrer said she chose to intern with the Inclusive Fitness and Health program because of how Scott spoke about it.
“You can just see the passion that he has because he started this program. You can really see how much he loves it. I really wanted to experience that and I’ve really created that close connection with this program. It’s a really good [opportunity] if anyone wants to feel that connection in a community with a [great] group of individuals. It is a wonderful experience,” Rehrer said.
“Through IFH, we’ve been able to spread disabilities awareness by giving a different group of VCU students and volunteers each session the opportunity to work with our incredible participants,” Mardigian said. “Though we do focus on strengthening the body, we’re also strengthening minds, community awareness and friendships.”
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