Thursday, April 24, 2014

Swimming toward a Healthy Future at Misericordia Home


By: Caitlin Morneau, AmeriCorps Program Assistant

In the middle of Chicago is a campus of 18 buildings on 31 acres of land. On it sits Misericordia Home, an organization that “supports individuals with developmental disabilities in maximizing their level of independence and self-determination with an environment that fosters spirituality, dignity, respect and enhancement of quality of life”.

Misericordia Home has been responding to the needs of children and adults through residential, educational and medical services since 1921. Inspired by the example of other full-time, faith-based service programs in the Chicago area, Residential Administrator, Joe Ferarra, sought to create an AmeriCorps program at his place of work and turned to Catholic Volunteer Network.

This year Misericordia Home hosts five CVN  AmeriCorps members who serve in areas of therapy, direct care and fitness. Joe described to me that physical fitness is especially important to individuals with developmental disabilities. Joe explained, "[Our residents] struggle with healthy food choices and portion control. This leads to chronic heath issues just like the general population.  We face obesity as a huge issue with our residents and our AmeriCorps members in the fitness roles really are able to provide the direct one on one support our residents need to be successful and see results, which make them want to do more- to be healthier and live longer happier lives!"  

He also told me that for many years Misericordia Home had a fitness room and pool, but lacked the capacity to formalize a fitness program for their residents. AmeriCorps members Katie Komale and Debbie Gleason have taken charge of creating regular exercise routines for residents of all abilities.

Debbie and a Misericordia Home resident
using specialized fitness equipment.
Debbie serves in the gym, coaching residents as they use equipment that was designed and donated especially with the residents’ needs in mind.  She says “We all know that there are many benefits to being fit and this is especially true for the population we serve. I believe exercise not only improves overall health, but it also helps reduce negative behaviors and thoughts. I have witnessed this with residents who have struggled with depression and then come to work out with us.  After coming to the fitness center on a regular basis they are more upbeat and social. Feeling good about how they look and being encouraged to meet new goals is a real benefit for those who lack a certain amount of self-esteem. There is a lot of congratulating going on in the fitness room and the feeling is incredible when I get to see how proud the residents are of all their work and the results!”

Through fitness activities, these young women gain keen insights into the lives of those that they serve. Debbie told me that, … not everyone responds the same way, and in fitness we have to tune in to what motivates each one of our clients and determine which equipment may be best for that individual.  For a lot of our folks, music by specific artists helps; others like to have a one-on-one workout with staff, with all attention focused on them; still others prefer to dance; and some have to get on every machine or circuit for their work out to be complete. Finding what works for each resident has been very rewarding since it helps me get to know each of them on a more personal level.

One activity that both members loved to talk about was swimming. Katie was a competitive swimmer herself and spends every Wednesday morning in the pool with three ladies. She explained,These women used to swim often when they were younger, but have spent less and less time in the pool as they have grown older.  Having been a swimmer my whole life and a lifeguard for eight years, I am extremely comfortable in the water and I think that really helps the ladies feel comfortable in the water as well.  Collaboratively, we have come up with multiple fun games to play in the pool that all three ladies enjoy.  Everyone gets in a good workout (even me) without even realizing it is a workout.  I find myself looking forward to Wednesday mornings because I love seeing how excited the ladies are to get in the pool and play.”

Beyond the joy that all participants find in their fitness routines, Katie is keenly aware of the affect that her service has on the residents, as well as the affect that they have on her. “Knowing that if I had not done this program and got these ladies in the pool and moving they would not be improving their health, not only by exercising but also by increasing their happiness, I know God has chosen the best possible plan for me.  I know that years from now these Wednesday mornings with the ladies will have a huge impact on me and I would not change that for the world.”

Thank you Debbie, Katie and all Misericordia Home CVN AmeriCorps members for your commitment to healthy futures!