Mundelein parks program uses fitness to aid veterans
At night, Marine Corps veteran Mark Thommes works a part-time job as a sushi chef.
Thommes used that job experience one afternoon in May to demonstrate how to create tuna and veggie rolls to a group of veterans. The event, presented by the Mundelein Park and Recreation District, is one of the many health-oriented events the district's Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies program has featured for veterans in the past two years.
"This event was an opportunity for everyone to sit, chat, and maybe learn something new," said Thommes, 45, of Grayslake.
Along with hosting social events, the program promotes mental and physical health for veterans as they assimilate back into their communities.
"The Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies program for wounded, ill, or injured military personnel was created to provide a way of transitioning back into the community as a civilian through fitness," said Rose Nudo-Semsak, Mundelein Park District Community Center manager. "I think that this is the most worthwhile thing the park district does. It's a great program for veterans who do so much for their country."
Through the program, the district's Park View Health and Fitness Center offers veterans a one-year free fitness membership, 15 one-hour personal training sessions, and a membership for a workout partner of their choice.
It also encourages participants to attend social events, ranging from the sushi demonstration to pickleball games to guided meditation.
The district started offering Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies in 2013 after being approached by a representative from AllenForce, a nonprofit organization that establishes programs to bridge the gap between military and civilian life.
Since the start of the Mundelein chapter, 29 people have participated in the program that serves veterans from Mundelein, Lake Zurich, Grayslake, Hawthorn Woods, Libertyville, Lincolnshire and Vernon Hills.
To participate, a veteran must have an honorable discharge, have a service-connected disability or an equivalent non-service connected injury or illness.
In order to successfully assist veterans in healing their injuries, Park View's trainers go through an extensive two-day physical and mental training session. They learn about physical modifications and post-traumatic stress disorder from a psychologist.
"The session really showed us how to think outside the box," said Maggie Milton, Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies coordinator. "There are so many different special needs, whether it be physical or nonphysical, where you need to improvise. It was unbelievable how they were able to show us different variations on things we normally do as trainers.
"All of those things are intertwined, but how do you do that with someone who has an amputation? Or with someone who is in a wheelchair?"
Thommes, who served in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as a part of Operation Desert Shield and Storm, came to Park View with an injury in one knee.
"My knee is shredded. After the injury, I favored one leg so much and I had no muscle in the injured leg," Thommes said. "My trainer has to adjust due to my injury. She says we have to exercise both legs, but also do single-leg exercises."
Since joining the program, Thommes' injured leg has gained more muscle and his hip problems have gone away. For motivation, Thommes has also brought his son to work out with him.
"It makes you feel good about yourself," he said. "The staff here is great. It's sometimes hard to go to a health club when you're out of shape and you're trying to get in shape. But this is a nonthreatening atmosphere."
Once the one-year membership expires, Park View offers a reduced rate for veterans to continue their fitness practices. The veterans brought together by this program often keep in touch. Thommes will wave a greeting to fellow veterans working out on the gym floor. He encourages any veterans to consider completing the program.
"(Any prospective veterans) are going to look forward to coming here," Thommes said. "It helps you get out of the house, and you meet some really interesting people. It's the community saying, 'Guess what, guys? We're going to help you.'"