Pilot program helps veterans with disabilities get fit
Steve Baskis makes his way to the bench press at Addison Park District's Club Fitness, his hand on the shoulder of personal trainer Joe Sinople. He dons a special glove to improve the grip in his nerve-damaged left hand.
Baskis, a former U.S. Army infantryman, was wounded and blinded when a roadside bomb exploded near his armored vehicle on May 13, 2008, in Iraq. A Healthy Minds, Healthy Body program spearheaded by the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association in partnership with Club Fitness, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the U.S. Paralympics is helping him rebuild his body and train for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
The pilot program offers qualifying vets with disabilities and their workout partners a year's free membership at Club Fitness, along with 15 sessions with a personal trainer, exercise materials for home use and social opportunities to meet with other vets. The expectation is that after a year, the veterans will be able to continue with workouts on their own.
Baskis, a Glen Ellyn resident, was the first to sign up when the program started in September 2009.
"It's near my hometown. I can come and get the kind of exercises and workouts that I really need," he said.
Athletic by nature, Baskis said he would pursue fitness even if the program wasn't free, but the equipment and guidance he receives from a personal trainer are a plus.
"Everything works really nice and it seems like it's well laid-out," he said. "It would be cool for the whole country if every state did this."
Larry Reiner, executive director of NEDSRA, said he got the idea for the initiative after seeing the National Parks and Recreation Association partner with the U.S. Paralympics.
"We have the facilities. We have the resources. We just need to put them together," he said. "The key thing is we need to welcome our veterans back home."
The program has received partial funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and has the full backing of the NEDSRA board, Reiner said.
During its pilot stage, "Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies" is accepting veterans from any location who have a disability rating of 10 percent or more from the Department of Veterans Affairs. So far, 24 veterans have enrolled in the 50 program's 50 open slots.
Given the unique opportunity, some of the participating veterans come from as far south as Joliet and as far north as Gurnee, said Monica Del Angel, director of public information for NEDSRA.
"If this works, we feel it can be replicated throughout the state," Reiner said.
Program manager Donna Sebok said she is reaching far and wide to spread the word to veterans who might benefit. She has contacted veterans' hospitals, family support groups and student veterans groups at colleges and universities; invited other organizations that work with veterans to the monthly socials; and even written letters to veterans she read about in newspaper articles.
Vietnam-era vets are welcome to the fitness program and often serve as mentors to the newly returned veterans, Sebok said.
"I've been very grateful for the connection," she said. "It just feels good to offer something for the great service they've given us."
When Baskis heard about the program, it didn't take him long to join. He'd spent about six months in Hines V.A. Hospital near Maywood, during which time his muscles had atrophied.
"As soon as I was discharged from the hospital, I was seeking ways to improve my health again," he said.
Living in Forest Park after his discharge from the hospital, Baskis knew he soon would be moving to Glen Ellyn where he and his fiancee (now wife) had purchased at home. Baskis takes the Pace paratransit service to the fitness center two to three times a week for one-hour workouts. He also attends Paralympic training camps for tandem cycling and works out at home.
"My goal is to make it onto the national (Paralympic) team. I want to get on the team and go to London in 2012," he said.
The 24-year-old ruefully admits he can't resist other opportunities that come his way. He missed some workout sessions because he went on an expedition to climb a volcano in Mexico.
He competed in a half-Ironman in Georgia, biking 56 miles and running a half-marathon. About two weeks later, he entered last year's Chicago Marathon - an event that garnered him media publicity that interfered with his training, he said. He made it halfway through the race.
"I have trouble saying no," he admitted. "I should have waited longer and trained better."
An advocate for veterans' fitness and recreation, Baskis also is working to organize chapters of The Mission Continues and Team River Run in the Chicago area. The Mission Continues brings veterans together to volunteer in the community and Team River Run organizes river rafting trips for veterans.
"I love doing things outdoors," Baskis said.
Baskis said he's always had a positive attitude toward life and he sees no reason to change now. Some of his buddies were injured far worse than he was.
"The best thing I think for me is not dwell on what's changed in your life, but to drive forward and do what you need to do to get by because you can't change what's happened," he said.
Clients with spunk
It's that kind of spunk and determination that makes working with veterans a pleasure, said fitness trainer Sinople. Sinople had no previous experience working with people with disabilities, but now is aiming at becoming a certified inclusive fitness trainer. NEDSRA is working with the University of Illinois-Chicago to prepare trainers to take the inclusive fitness exam.
"I like this. It's so much fun. It's kind of a learning experience for me, too," Sinople said.
The center is about to obtain its first piece of fitness equipment that can be adapted to be used by people with and without disabilities. Meanwhile, Sinople has modified exercises so they can be done by vets in wheelchairs, learned to guide the visually impaired like Baskis around the fitness club floor, and made use of equipment such as padded cuffs so vets who lack hand strength can still give their arms a workout.
"You adjust everything to what they can and cannot do," Sinople said. "Hopefully, I can help them get close to what they were before or just have a better life."
So far, Sinople is the main trainer in the vets program. He doesn't complain.
"They're more determined than the able-bodied I work with," he said.
To inquire about the Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies program, contact Lisa Deets at (630) 620-4500, ext. 140.