Promoting Individuality and Inclusiveness

By: Ryan Lucas, USABA Contributor

At its essence, independence is a state of being, a quality that, akin to a camera lens zooming in, narrows from the societal to the individual.

But just as with any other abstraction, a person doesn’t need to see the condition’s many aspects in motion to feel and know its existence.

Like many people with visual impairments, Gabriella Drago lives with a heightened sense of awareness for that all-important quality. From her work as a counselor at the Cleveland Sight Center’s Highbrook Lodge, a camp for people who are blind or have low vision, to her studies as a music therapy major at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, to her participation in the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA)/Anthem National Fitness Challenge, almost everything she does seeks to promote individual independence.

“I have been so lucky in my life to have an amazing support system from my family, the Cleveland Sight Center, friends, and teachers who helped me figure out how much I truly was capable of and allowed me to begin the process of reaching my full potential,” the 21-year-old senior and Ohio native, who has a congenital eye disorder that leaves her without vision and very little light perception, said. “I want to give others the opportunity to find their independence, improve their emotional well-being, increase their confidence, and improve their quality of life.”

For Drago, who just started her fall semester at Baldwin Wallace, music therapy—in particular work with people who are blind or visually impaired—encompasses many facets of individuality and self-expression, including mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual elements. Just as personal independence has universal cultural connotations, music is a connector for humanity, an inherent form of expression that encourages originality and individuality.

With her Fitbit Flex 2 on her wrist, Drago has spent the summer involving all the interconnected areas of the body, too. The device—which, through the fifth iteration of the fitness challenge, USABA and Anthem Foundation have partnered to distribute among youth and adults who are blind and visually impaired at 13 organizations across the nation, thereby increasing participants’ physical activity and enriching their lives—is easy to use and fun to help monitor individual progress, she pointed out.

“I got used to it very quickly,” Drago said of the Fitbit Flex 2. “It's really light, and the only time I notice that it's on my wrist is when it vibrates to remind me to move or tell me that I reached my 10,000 steps.

“I really like that I am able to use the fitness band via the Fitbit app on my phone. I'm grateful that the app is pretty accessible. I also like that I can use it in the water to track swimming. I was in the pool a lot while working at camp, and I would have missed out on a lot of steps and activity had I not been able to wear it.”

Throughout her time this summer at Highbrook Lodge, a camp she attended as a child, Drago used the USABA/Anthem National Fitness Challenge to boost her overall fitness level. And, while the camp ended on Aug. 6, she is pushing forward, sustaining the benchmark of activity the program requires.

“The challenge has definitely helped me keep up that fitness level and has helped me stay motivated while working as a camp counselor and beyond,” Drago said. “If I’ve made it partway through my day and only have 3,000 steps, it motivates me to keep going so I don’t end my day with only 5,000 steps.

“It helps me always think about that 10,000 mark and try to get past that, so having that count definitely motivates me to move more. I always want to at least get that 100 percent; if I have a 90 percent, it really annoys me.”
Another tool of her personal independence, a black Labrador she’s had for two years, also helps Drago keep up on her exercise regimen.

“I have a guide dog, so a lot of times I’ll make sure to do some extra walking with her to get more steps in,” she said. “Or I’ll make sure I take the long way to get extra steps, or I’ll stay up later or wake up earlier to go on a walk with my guide dog or go on a hike.”

While Drago didn’t grow up participating in sports or working out on a regular basis, she’s now pursuing fitness opportunities with friends and professionals at the university. Her entry point in the USABA/Anthem Challenge coincided with training for her first formal fitness event.

“One of my professors started an organization at the state school for the blind back in 2002,” Drago said. “The program is for runners, and he helps train sighted runners to run with blind runners. I learned about this through my university, and we started training in February or March to do a 5K together.”

As a result, Drago brought parallel forces of personal motivation to her participation in the challenge: she needed to prepare for her first 5K, and she needed extra energy this summer for the demands of a camp counselor job. And, while the combination bred more fitness independence for the summer, she will strive to maintain that level of physical activity this fall on campus.

“I think work in an active job really does lend itself well to the fitness challenge,” Drago said. “If I didn’t have a job, I think it would be a lot harder for me to stay so active. I live in a suburban area, so there aren’t a lot of places for me to go walk with ease. Having this job has definitely allowed me to increase my fitness level, so I’ll try to keep that going.”

As she seeks to carve the unique marks of her individuality on the music therapy profession—after she graduates, she wants to work in a school or hospice setting—Drago can also espouse the values of fitness in supporting both independence and group dynamics. For people with visual impairments, programs like the National Fitness Challenge encourage self-motivation and community inclusiveness.

“I think being in this program helps defy the stereotype that people who are blind aren’t fit because places like the (Cleveland) Sight Center offer options to become more active, and the Fitbit keeps you motivated to stay more active,” she said. “I would tell people who are interested in the fitness challenge to be the best self you can be, and this can help with that. This makes you more involved—socially and physically.”
 

Motivated by the Numbers

To say Logan Cooper lives an active lifestyle is likely an understatement. More accurately, the 16-year-old doesn’t stop moving. The high school junior-to-be, from the Santa Clarita area, near Los Angeles, is always on the go.

“I don’t like to sit at home,” Logan said.

Added his mother, Susie Cooper, “He’s very, very active.”

Logan gradually lost his vision when he was about 6 ½ years old. It happened in 2006 and into 2007, and now, he only has some light perception. But that doesn’t slow him down. In fact, not much does.

And now, to enhance his experience when working out, Logan is wearing a Fitbit as part of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes-Anthem National Fitness Challenge. With the Fitbit wearable, he’s tracking his steps and putting a number on his physical activity, every day.

The National Fitness Challenge so far has impacted the lives of more than 3,000 Americans who are blind and visually impaired. The initiative is supported by grant funding from Anthem Foundation and implemented by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). This is the program’s fifth installment. The goal of the Challenge remains the same every year: To raise the activity level of each participant, with the goal of engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity and 10,000 steps a day. For Logan, that’s nothing.

The wearable technology plays a key role in motivating and tracking progress. Earlier this year, Anthem Foundation awarded USABA grant funding for the project and USABA partnered with 13 agencies across the nation -- including Junior Blind of America, which Logan is a part of -- to recruit participants and provide resources, including Fitbits for participants, and opportunities to engage in physical activity and sports to help participants reach their goals.

The funding from Anthem Foundation provided a Fitbit Flex 2 wearable device to each participant. The Fitbit acts as a way for participants to monitor their progress. It also promotes interaction with other participants, as the 13 groups are competing with their fellow team members on active minutes and number of steps each month.

As for Logan, joining the Challenge was a natural fit. Not only is he up on his feet all day anyway, but he’s been involved with Junior Blind of America since he was 7 years old, so he’s coming up on 10 years of involvement with the organization.

Logan said he likes Junior Blind because of all the friends he’s made through the group, and he loves attending Camp Bloomfield. In fact, at the time of our interview, he had just returned from camp last week and said it was a blast.

“Usually, I log about 13,000 to 15,000 steps a day (on the Fitbit),” Logan said. “But at camp, I was getting 18,000 to 20,000 steps in.”

When asked about the wearable technology, Logan said the experience has been “very fun,” but challenging at times.

So, what does he do when the day is over but he hasn’t hit his step goal yet?

Logan said he usually just hits the stairs or gets his numbers up around the house. It doesn’t come down to a last-ditch effort very often.

“I play goalball and walk around with friends,” Logan said. “I walk home every day (from school) with my brother.”

And, as his mother reminded him, when school is in session, he runs a mile or two every day in gym class.

But his preferred form of exercise is definitely goalball. His season starts in August, and this will mark Logan’s fifth year. He plays right wing or center.

His team is working toward an ambitious goal.

“We really want to go to this tournament in November in Florida,” Logan said.

His passion for the sport is audible in his voice. There seems to be little doubt that all the walking during his off-season is certainly helping him stay fit. This is Logan’s second year with the National Fitness Challenge, so by now, he knows the drill.

“There are 10 of us at Junior Blind with Fitbits, and we try to beat each other in step counts every day,” he said.

There’s no denying his competitive and active spirit.

“This is just kind of the way I’ve always been,” Logan said.

UC Davis Graduate Finds Breath of Fresh Air at Local LightHouse Agency

By: USABA Contributor

Like many young adults who have just earned a college diploma, Hannah Chadwick has been pouring her time and energy into her job search.

Chadwick graduated from the University of California, Davis last year. She studied international relations and Chinese, and would love to work in one of those areas -- or the growing field of diversity inclusion.

The 25-year-old, who has for at least 10 years been involved with a San Francisco-based organization called LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, spoke about the group’s many resources.

“I didn’t get overly involved (with LightHouse) until the past year or so,” she said. “But they have this employment immersion program that teaches you interview skills, (like) how to write a cover letter and improve your resume -- all these opportunities seemed perfect. LightHouse is great for helping you navigate the world as a blind person. But first, I thought I’d spend some time getting fit and working on fitness. And over the past year, it really took off.”

Chadwick lives in San Francisco’s East Bay area, near Berkeley. But she was raised much farther north, in Humboldt, California, a region best known for its towering redwood trees. It’s beautiful, and was a really enjoyable place to grow up, but it was challenging to get resources as a person living with visual impairment, Chadwick said.

She has some light perception and can see shapes, but said she doesn’t have much usable vision.

Growing up blind in Humboldt, “No one knows what to do with you,” she joked. And that’s why LightHouse was such a breath of fresh air.

“I thought I was the only one!” Chadwick said, referring again to her visual impairment. That is, until she started attending a summer recreational camp as a child, and really learning more about the blind community.

She estimates she’s been going to camps and at least marginally involved with LightHouse for about 10 years now, ever since 2005, she said.

Fast-forward to today: Chadwick is way more involved, especially with the National Fitness Challenge -- which fit right in with her current health and fitness goals.

The National Fitness Challenge has impacted the lives of more than 3,000 people who are blind and visually impaired. The goal of the Challenge remains the same every year: to raise the physical activity level of each participant, with the goal of engaging in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity and 10,000 steps a day.

Here’s how it works: Anthem Foundation awarded the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes grant funding, for the fifth year in a row -- and USABA partnered with 13 agencies across the nation -- including LightHouse -- to recruit participants and provide resources, along with physical activity opportunities, so that participants could reach their daily goals.

The technology plays a key role in motivating and tracking success. The funding from Anthem Foundation provided a Fitbit Flex 2 wearable device to each participant. The Fitbit acts as a way for people to monitor their progress. It also introduces a level of interaction with other participants, as the 13 groups are competing with their fellow team members on active minutes and number of steps each month.

Chadwick loves using her Fitbit.

“I was thinking about getting (one) for a long time,” she said. “When I was in Davis, I walked everywhere. It’s a big campus. I walked a lot.”

So perhaps it would have been interesting to see how her steps in college stack up against her steps now. Currently, she logs about 15,000 a day. Chadwick said it’s cool to be able to view her steps and mileage every day.

“And you can see other people’s numbers, too,” she added. “So that’s a huge motivator. Sometimes I get super competitive and I want to be on top of the list.”

Usually, she walks with her friends, her boyfriend or her guide dog.

“We’ll say, ‘Let’s go for a walk! Let’s go try a new restaurant,’” said Chadwick, adding that she considers herself a “borderline foodie.”

But instead of hopping on BART (a major form of transportation in and around the Bay Area) or opening up the Uber app, she laces up her shoes. Living in the Berkeley area is perfect for her current lifestyle. There are always new restaurants and fresh places in town to try.

“I just don’t like walking without reason, or feeling like I’m going in circles,” Chadwick said.

LightHouse offers group walks, too. And although Chadwick has mostly been getting in her steps in other ways, she appreciates the option. She also recently participated in a fundraising event with LightHouse called Cycle For Sight. The effort raises money for the group’s summer camp. Chadwick cycled 50 miles with her tandem partner for the cause. She described it as “a ton of fun.”

This has been a perfect time in her life to recommit to health and an active lifestyle.

“My mom has done CrossFit the past three or four years, but I was hesitant,” she said. “I’ve always walked a lot. Growing up, I did a lot of hiking around the redwoods. I’ve just always been really outdoorsy.”

And that’s why she wasn’t exactly sure how she gained weight in college, considering all the walking, but joked that the “freshman 15” phenomenon isn’t exactly new, or unique to her situation.

“After college, I realized I had gained some weight, so (wearing the Fitbit) helped me get over it,” Chadwick said. “The Challenge was motivating. I was like, ‘I want to be how I used to be!’ … I just want to be healthy.”
 

Succeeding with a Normal Purpose

By: Ryan Lucas, USABA Contributor

Vision—or lack thereof—is not a defining trait of normalcy. Sight, Delores Butler reasons, is an instrument of convenience.

For the 59-year-old resident of Decatur, Ga., regular exercise—through beep baseball and participation in the Anthem/United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) National Fitness Challenge—does not flout social convention or defy physical laws. Working out tests her limitations, shapes her body, releases her stress, enhances her mind—just as it does for any sighted person.

“When you’re visually impaired, a lot of people look at you and say, ‘How do you do this? How do you do that?’ Our visual impairments are just an inconvenience; we do everything everyone else does—and that includes exercising,” Butler, a single mother of three children in their 30’s, said.

“People say, ‘Well, you’re an inspiration.’ I say, ‘No, I’m not.’ They say, ‘Yes, you are. I always see you walking around downtown, and I see you going from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ or shopping.’ I tell them, ‘That’s what a normal person does, and I’m normal—I just can’t see.’”

Some people—sighted or visually impaired—are also more charged with currents of competitiveness than others. Butler’s inner motivating force is always flowing—even when it comes to “friendly” competition.

“With me and my buddy Jimmy—he’s on my (beep baseball) team, too—we always compete against each other,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘You don’t want to go outside, do you, Jimmy? It’s going to start pouring on your head, so you can’t go walking outside. You’re going to get struck by lightning, or a dog’s going to chase you. You better forget it and stay home.’

“Meanwhile, I’m in the house and just jogging on my treadmill, doing jumping jacks and stuff.”

Butler’s no-fear approach to pushing herself and others, as well as her desire for overall self-improvement, combine to make her an ideal fit for the Anthem/USABA national program. Now in its fifth year, the fitness challenge seeks to provide youth and adults who are blind or visually impaired with the means to increase their physical activity and enrich their lives, giving each participant a Fitbit Flex 2 to integrate technology and social media in an individual’s workout regimen.

For Butler, the connection is incomparable. Whether she’s tracking down the beep baseball from her defensive position, trying a paddleboard or kayak with the Atlanta-based Georgia Blind Sports, or exercising at home, Butler—who has cone dystrophy, a retina disease common in her family that changed her life at age 24—relishes each day in the fitness challenge.

“It helps me out in so many ways,” Butler, who also serves as volunteer business and braille teacher for children in addition to her work as a food vendor at various federal centers through the U.S. Congressional Randolph-Sheppard Act, said. “My circulation is a lot better, and I feel better. Before it was like, ‘Aw, I don’t want to get up and do this.’ The six weeks I had to work I would literally get up at 3:30 in the morning and do 45 minutes on the treadmill, and then I would take a shower because I had to get out of the house by 5:15 to get to the job by 6:20.

“I was posting on Facebook, ‘If I have to get up at 3:30 in the morning one more time just to get on the treadmill, I’m going to scream!’ But it was helping me at the same time, so I just started yelling at myself for not going to bed on time.”

The same sparks of self-motivation have enflamed Butler’s energy and ability on the beep baseball diamond for the past seven years. Few players in the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA) can match her fielding prowess.
“I love defense,” said Butler, who is playing for the Tyler Tigers this season because her usual Atlanta Eclipse squad did not have enough players. “I’ll play defense all day long. I just get so excited when I’m playing defense. Most people like hitting the ball and running to the base, but I like defense more than I like offense, believe it or not.

“They call me ‘The Beast’ on defense because I love going from side to side and stopping balls. I told my coach, ‘Most of the guys can make it to the base faster than I can, so put me on defense.’ For the last two years all I did was defense, although last year I did play offense a few times.”

Beep baseball uses many of baseball’s standard rules, adding the auditory element of a beeper in the softball-like ball. The game, which was first organized in 1976 for people with visual impairments, does not have restrictions on gender or age, so athletes’ ages may range from 10 to 70.

Every summer, the nation’s many beep baseball squads gather in a different spot for the National Beep Baseball Association World Series. This year’s tournament is in West Palm Beach, Fla., and the 2018 iteration will take place in Wisconsin, allowing Butler to experience all sections of the country.

“I’m getting some notches on my state belt,” she said with a laugh.

And Butler, the oldest female on her team, has carved out her name as one of the game’s defensive greats.

“I had the top ranking in defense: I did 23 putouts,” Butler said of her 2013 season. “The only reason I didn’t do more because while we were playing my right quad was tearing, and it just felt like someone was stabbing me in the leg. Every time I played it felt like it was just ripping higher and higher on my leg.”

Since that injury, Butler has expanded her workouts to prevent another disruption of her playing time. She often exercises at home, employing a routine that includes hand weights, an abdominal machine, a whole body vibration machine, a treadmill, and a stair climber.

The fitness challenge has augmented all those efforts.

“I did lose 10 pounds since I started, but it’s the tone I was looking for,” Butler said. “I’m trying to build up the muscle mass, and that’s definitely helping. Everybody tells you you’ll see the muscles and the toning, and that’s definitely what I’m noticing now.”

Butler is also striving to incorporate more arduous training in her home gym. Instead of walking on her treadmill, she’s now running, and she cites the national fitness challenge as the cause.

“The other day I said, ‘Just try it,’” she said, a phrase she repeats to people who are reluctant to join the program. “It’s not as bad as thought, as long as I start slow and increase the pace.

“Most of the time, it starts off as a mental thing. People say, ‘Oh, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ Well, how do you know you can’t do it if you don’t try? You’ve got to try.”

Fitbits Help National Fitness Challenge Participants Set and Meet Realistic Goals

By: USABA Contributor

For Jenny Carmack, walking had always been a way to ease her worries -- that is, until two years ago, when she lost all of her vision.

“I’ve always enjoyed walking,” the 43-year-old said. “It’s been a stress reliever for me over the years. But it was causing more stress than it was relieving stress when I lost all my vision. It became intimidating just to walk a few blocks.”

Luckily, walking is back to being an enjoyable activity these days -- which is important, considering Carmack has been wearing a Fitbit and tracking her steps as part of the National Fitness Challenge. Slowly but surely, Carmack has gotten back out there, and it’s safe to say she’s no longer intimidated. If anything, others should be intimidated by all the walking she’s been doing.

The National Fitness Challenge has impacted the lives of more than 3,000 people who are blind and visually impaired. The goal of the Challenge remains the same every year: to raise the physical activity level of each participant, with the goal of engaging in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity and 10,000 steps a day.

Here’s how it works: Anthem Foundation awarded the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes grant funding, as it has for the fifth year in a row -- and USABA partnered with 13 agencies across the nation -- including the Missouri affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, which Carmack is a part of -- to recruit participants and provide resources, along with physical activity opportunities, so that participants could reach their daily goals.

The technology plays a key role in motivating and tracking success. The funding from Anthem Foundation provided a Fitbit Flex 2 wearable device to each participant. The Fitbit acts as a way for people to monitor their progress. It also introduces a level of interaction with other participants, as the 13 groups are competing with their fellow team members on active minutes and number of steps each month.

Back to Carmack: Growing up legally blind, she was involved with marching band, and she tried her hand at softball. But really, she just liked to walk. So perhaps that’s why she was a perfect fit for the Challenge.

Ever since it started this year, Carmack has been an “extremely dependable and reliable” participant, said Robin House, the chairperson for the Missouri group’s sports and recreation committee, who has been with the organization for 20 years.

So would it surprise you to learn that initially, Carmack wasn’t so sure about the Challenge? In addition to the recent loss of her vision, which happened due to complications involving her glaucoma, Carmack also lives with a heart condition, and she wasn’t sure how well she’d do.

But Carmack was smart. When she set her step goal at 10,000 a day and failed to reach her mark, she didn’t lose hope. Instead, she tweaked the system to her advantage.

“It felt discouraging to never reach the 10,000-a-day (step goal),” Carmack said. “But then I learned you can move your goal around. So I started aiming for 4,000 steps a day. Now I’m up to 9,000 a day. And when I hit 9,000, that vibration from the Fitbit gives me that, ‘Yay, I did it!’ feeling.”

Carmack said she likes getting the feedback from the wearable device, and her goal is to hit 10,000 a day soon. And she doesn’t dismiss her heart condition. Carmack is well aware of how it affects her body.

“I have a hard time pushing myself some days,” she said. “And then some days I’m more tired than others. ... I just have to listen to my body.”

Throughout the week, Carmack walks with her husband or on the treadmill. She also tries to attend the group walks with NFB Missouri’s Lewis and Clark chapter.

Stephanie McDowell, 38, has been embarking on the group walks, as well. Although she too is visually impaired, tracking her steps and living in St. Louis -- just like Carmack -- the two are very different.

When presented with the opportunity to take part in the Challenge, McDowell didn’t hesitate.

“She has such a positive attitude -- it’s inspiring,” House said. “(McDowell has) faced adversity. But she’s always very positive and forward-thinking.” Both women “display such commitment to the Challenge,” House said.

It was easy for McDowell to commit to the Challenge because a lot of her steps come from a normal day’s activities. This is her first time wearing a Fitbit. She said she plans to continue all the walking after the Challenge is over. It helps that she’s not in pain anymore.

Three years ago, McDowell was hit by a car. A driver went up on the curb and smashed right into her. The crash broke McDowell’s collar bone and pelvic bone. It really hurt to walk afterward, and recovery was painful, she said.

On top of that, McDowell recently had two stents put in her heart.

“It’s been six months,” she said. “I get tired easily. But the Challenge has helped me get moving again. Being around others helps. And you’re supposed to exercise as you recover from a heart attack -- eat better and move around. So it all fell in line.”

McDowell said she was en route to a cleaner lifestyle, but wearing the Fitbit motivated her even more to keep up with the healthy habits. She either hits 10,000 steps a day or comes very close, she said.

Between the heart complications and the car accident, “I think I’ve hit my quota,” for unfortunate health events, McDowell joked.

“This has been really fun to see what I’m capable of and how well everyone else is doing,” she said.

McDowell has been involved with NFB Missouri for 10 years and lived with visual impairment since she was 14.

The NFB is headquartered in Baltimore. Missouri, an NFB affiliate, is then broken into chapters -- for example, the Lewis and Clark chapter in St. Louis.

This Missouri team is the only group of the 13 organizations competing in the Challenge with statewide competitors, House said. This marks the NFB Missouri’s first year with the Challenge, as well.

“It’s really going well,” House said. “We love it. For a long time, we wanted to do some work in terms of promoting fitness for blind people and our members. But we didn’t have the right framework to build any momentum. Missouri had its own (sports and recreation-type) committee that we’d just started in the fall when we learned about the National Fitness Challenge from USABA. We thought it’d be perfect. The Challenge gave us that direction and framework that we needed.

“We were kind of asking ourselves, ‘What should our purpose be?’ We didn’t get too far when the opportunity became available.”

House said the group just finished in third place for the third consecutive month.

“We’re proud of that, although we’d love to see the top two spots.”


Lighting the Way to Fitness Dreams

By: Ryan Lucas, USABA Contributor

For many Americans, weight loss goals are like distant flickers of light, appearing and vanishing as fast as shooting stars.

Through the Anthem/United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) National Fitness Challenge, participants can see up close at all times what, for countless others, would be rare glimmers of hope.
Charles and Jan Karrick are proof that weight loss dreams are attainable, not some fleeting cosmic phenomena. The Fort Wayne, Ind., husband and wife have, over a year and a half of an ordered approach to exercise, shed more than a combined 130 pounds.

“It’s something that we would’ve never even considered really until recently,” Jan Karrick said. “We’ve really enjoyed getting out and walking and getting our Fitbits so we can see what we’re doing, see how we’re progressing day to day.

“It’s probably a little more of a physical challenge for me than it is for Chuck, but we’re really enjoying it. It’s nice being able to be physically active.”

The Karricks joined the National Fitness Challenge, which seeks to provide youth and adults who are blind or visually impaired with the means to increase their physical activity and enhance their lives, for the program’s 2017 iteration. Although the Karricks are not visually impaired, they are members of the Fort Wayne organization Turnstone, one of USABA’s partner agencies.

“We’re there under the veteran’s program at Turnstone,” Charles Karrick, who served in the U.S. Navy, as did his wife, said. “Lexi (Olinske, a fitness specialist) at Turnstone invited us to come on this journey with the Fitbits and USABA. Twice a week, we’re going to different parks with Turnstone to walk and train.”

The Anthem/USABA Challenge gives each participant a Fitbit Flex 2, integrating technology and social media in an individual’s fitness regimen. As they walk around the track several days per week and do other exercises at the Turnstone facility, compiling steps on their Fitbits, the Karricks achieve their goals at a sensible, personalized pace.

“The program’s helped me, especially during the wintertime, keep my weight off,” Charles Karrick said. “All I’d do in the winter in the past was just sit in a chair and relax—I retired three years ago—and all I was doing was gaining weight. I started a weight loss program, and this winter we decided to join Turnstone to walk and work out.

“It’s been really enjoyable. I never thought I’d say I like working out, but I enjoy it.”

“I’ve had to have numerous joints replaced, and it was to the point where I just couldn’t walk last summer,” Jan Karrick said. “I had my knee replaced last September, and it’s just been uphill ever since.
“This program just helps me take a realistic approach to fitness.”

The Karricks have also now completed several 5Ks in their area, and they are slated to do one more each month through September. In addition, they will take on a 10K this summer while they vacation in Maine.

These accomplishments and goals are driving the Karricks to do as much as possible—within reason and physical limitations.

“I’ve struggled my entire life with being overweight and have done Weight Watchers off and on for years,” Jan Karrick, who has had replacements in her shoulders, hip and knee, said. “We joined this program together and have lost this weight together, and it’s been so beneficial for me because of the joint replacements I’ve had.

“A lot of that is because I carried so much extra weight for so many years. The arthritis just decided that it liked my body.”

“Yeah, I just finished mowing a lawn, and I’ve got probably 22,000 steps in for today,” Charles Karrick added. “Last month through our weight loss program, we had a challenge with everyone in our group to do a minimum of 10,000 steps a day for the whole month of May, and I had something like over 400,000 steps for that.”

Their participation in Turnstone’s group endeavors stirs the Karricks to encourage their workout peers and appreciate everyone’s efforts.

“I think because of our weight loss goals and where we’re at right now, we try to be supportive role models for anybody to get up and do something active,” Jan Karrick, who before retirement worked in corporate design after serving three years of active duty, said. “I think we probably get more from seeing the accomplishments and struggles of others at Turnstone than we could ever give to them.”

“I don’t like going to the other workout places because there’s so much competition and me-me-me,” Charles Karrick, who worked as a locomotive engineer, also doing four years of active duty and 19 years in the U.S. Naval Reserve, said. “This is just a laid-back area where you go in and do your own thing.”

As they look ahead, the Karricks plan on maintaining their energy and will to succeed. The National Fitness Challenge is always accessible, provides manageable goals and lights their way to fitness sustainability, not flashing and burning out in the darkness of faded weight loss dreams.

“I didn’t even like doing PT when I was in the reserves,” Charles Karrick said. “But this program’s really helped me; being 64 years old, I think I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been besides boot camp.
“It’s so easy to say, ‘I don’t want to do it today.’ This program keeps us motivated.”


Teenage NFC Participant Influences Her Family to Step Toward Better Fitness

By: USABA Contributor

Growing up blind, some physical and developmental milestones for Paige Conley were delayed: Walking, for example. Paige didn’t walk until she was nearly 4 years old, her mother said.

“Paige was on her own time schedule,” Dawn Conley said. “(Even now), she does things when she’s ready.”

It was the same situation with Club VIBES. When Paige’s family first moved to the Knoxville, Tennessee area from Georgia, Paige, a third-grader at the time, didn’t show much interest in meeting new people or putting herself out there.

But Paige’s vision teacher told the family about Club VIBES -- a nonprofit organization that provides free mentoring services for visually impaired or blind youth, and their parents and guardians -- and Dawn was intrigued. Still, she didn’t push the issue with Paige.

But then a light seemed to switch on, seemingly overnight. In January, Paige was interested.

“I assumed when she was ready, she’d say so,” Dawn said. “And she did.”

Perhaps that’s one of the many things universal about kids everywhere. They do things on their own timeframe -- when they are truly ready.

And for someone who didn’t walk until she was nearly 4 years old, Paige has been hitting the pavement especially lately, as part of the National Fitness Challenge with Club VIBES. The 13-year-old loves wearing a Fitbit and logging her steps.

“It vibrates!” said Paige of the wearable technology.

To rewind for a moment, Paige was given the Fitbit as part of the National Fitness Challenge, which was established in 2011, and has impacted the lives of more than 3,000 people who are blind and visually impaired across the U.S.

The overall goal of the Challenge remains the same every year: to raise the physical activity level of each participant, with the goal of engaging in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity and 10,000 steps a day.

And that’s exactly what the Challenge has done for Paige -- it’s raised her activity level. But it’s also so much more than just that: the Challenge has given way to a lifestyle change for the entire Conley family.

“Do you have a Fitbit too?” we asked Paige’s mom.

“Well, yes,” Dawn said. “I have to keep up with Paige! It’s changed our entire family dynamic.”

Sometimes, Paige and Dawn go on walks with Club VIBES. Other times, the Conleys will stroll as a family. Paige has an 18-year-old brother in high school. Although he works full-time on top of his classwork, his Saturday mornings are free, Dawn said.

“So he walks with us,” she said. “We haul Dad along too, when he’s home.”

Paige is the youngest member currently involved with Club VIBES. But another girl, a freshman in high school, is similar in age to Paige, so it’s nice to have a friend to walk with, as well.

Here’s how the Fitness Challenge works, in relation to the club: Anthem Foundation awarded the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes grant funding, as it has for the fifth year in a row -- and USABA partnered with 13 agencies across the nation -- Club VIBES included -- to recruit participants and provide resources, along with physical activity opportunities, so that participants could reach their daily goals.

The technology plays a key role in motivating and tracking success. The funding from Anthem Foundation provided a Fitbit Flex 2 wearable device to each participant. The Fitbit acts as an accessible way for people to monitor their progress. It also introduces a level of interaction with other participants, as the 13 groups are competing with their fellow team members on active minutes and number of steps each month.

About 25 people are participating in the Challenge with Club VIBES.

As for Paige, she spoke enthusiastically about her Fitbit, saying she liked how it vibrated, signaling she had reached her daily step-goal. And when she realizes she might come up short on a particular day? She hops on the family treadmill.

“But I don’t like the hill feature!” she said with a laugh.

Paige’s voice got excited as she talked about a cruise she and her family were about to embark on, all the way to Mexico. She’s been on a cruise before, so she had an idea of what to expect.

When asked about walking and wearing the Fitbit while on vacation, Paige didn’t miss a beat or hesitate at all.

In fact, her voice was bursting with excitement.

“I’m going to walk on the track, if the boat has one,” Paige said. “And I’ll go to all the different shops.”

The cruise won’t stop her from getting her steps in, Paige said.

Sue Buckley, the president of the board for Club VIBES and a co-founder, along with her husband, called Paige “very dedicated” to the Challenge, and that dedication certainly shows.

Dawn agreed with that assessment of her daughter, adding that this has been a very motivating experience for Paige.

“(It all started because) Paige is a people-pleaser,” Dawn said. “She wants to make other people happy. I’ve been trying to get her healthier -- trying to find ways to get her more active, like in the pool in the summer. But in the winter, there’s not as much to do. We started walking on our own, occasionally.”

And then Buckley brought up the idea of the Challenge. This marks Club VIBES’ first year as a participating organization.

“This challenges our young people, but it also teaches them about the technology, as well as skills like responsibility and organization,” Buckley said. “Those are skills we’re working on anyway -- living skills.”

Buckley asked if Paige would like to join the Challenge, and it was as simple as that.

“Paige agreed,” Dawn said. “That’s Paige.”

So we asked Buckley: Why the interest in Paige’s involvement?

“She’s the youngest in our Challenge, which is admirable. She’s been blind her whole life,” Buckley said. “I wanted to challenge her to be responsible for the Fitbit and setting her goals. She doesn’t understand (all the health aspects involved). The Challenge motivated the whole family. The walking was first and nutrition and diet came next.”

Buckley, who has a background in physical education, said that not only is Paige getting her steps in, but she’s overcoming some issues with her gait. She’s struggled when it comes to walking with her heels together, but now, she’s losing weight and strengthening her legs in the process, Buckley said.

Speaking with the Conleys in mid-April, Dawn said Paige had indeed shed some pounds: 10 pounds, at last check, and 4 inches off her waist.

“And she’s 13, so her body’s changing right now on top of everything else,” Dawn said.

As for the nutrition, which Buckley referred to, Dawn said she had been cooking healthier lately anyway, seeing as Paige’s dad has diabetes.

Paige said she’s feeling great and eating healthier, even adding that the family tried low-carb pizza for dinner last week.

Paige seemed confident she will continue all the walking, well after the Challenge has ended. Her mom agreed, saying it’s been transformational in all kinds of ways -- and it’s strengthened their mother-daughter bond, as well.

“Paige is getting older, so being able to spend time together one on one, outside of homework, or our school routine, or everyday stuff -- and getting out to walk with her and talk with her has been really good,” Dawn said. “I really get a chance to listen to her. She’s growing up so fast.”

 


NFC Participant: Just Keep Moving

By: Ryan Lucas, USABA Contributor

Some athletic trainers just blow smoke from the fizzling embers of clients’ motivation. But Avery Neal believes a simple, customized approach stokes the fire of a person’s fitness enthusiasm.

“Anything you can do to move is great,” Neal, a 24-year-old aspiring athletic trainer and Indianapolis resident who was born legally blind, said. “If you’re just sitting around all day, not really getting up and moving, you can’t really be fit.

“Even if you’re at home, there are all these dance and workout DVDs and home programs out there to help. Get up and dance; just do something. Whatever you like to do, that’s all it takes.”

Neal understands fitness better than many people. The former Marian University scholarship athlete in track and field—he graduated in 2016 with a degree in exercise science, having qualified twice for the NCAA championships in the long jump, also competing in the 100-meter dash and the 200—works part time as an athletic trainer for Planet Fitness in addition to his full-time work as a UPS package handler.

Although he’s an atypical participant in the Anthem/USABA National Fitness Challenge—a program that allows the United States Association of Blind Athletes to partner with agencies across the nation, empowering youth and adults with visual impairments to improve their fitness levels—Neal prides himself on spreading his lifelong love of exercise to others.

“America’s like one of the fattest countries in the world,” he said with a laugh. “Statistically, we’re becoming a bunch of fat people. That’s a real thing, no matter how good—or even if—you can see.

“Plus, I just like to help people. So many people want to be physically fit and don’t have the means to do it, and sometimes you just need somebody to help you get there. I like doing that, and I like the result, watching people get in shape.”

Neal almost lost the opportunity to pursue that dream: to help mold people’s bodies and attitudes through the benefits of fitness. With the intensity and volatility of a massive storm, a major health issue—he had a stroke—rolled in on him, damaging his world.

“Last August, I went to the hospital for a headache,” he said in early May in a separate interview with USABA. “I went to an urgent care first. I worked for UPS for one day—it was my orientation day; I was sitting there, and my head hurt so much. I felt like I was going to pass out, so I went home and called my mom. She had my sister take me to the urgent care.

“They told me I had meningitis and gave me a shot for pain. We went to the hospital afterwards anyway. They gave me a CAT scan at the hospital and found that I had a brain injury and told me I needed surgery immediately.”

While the long recovery process kept him down, Neal vowed to surge back to full strength—and beyond.

“I was in the hospital for a month and a half,” he told USABA earlier this month. “So I was restless. I didn’t want to be laying around all the time. I decided to really dig in and push myself. I got back into goalball (a sport designed specifically for athletes with visual impairments), too.

“I’m not supposed to be doing any of this. I’m not supposed to be alive. The doctors still don’t know what caused the stroke. They keep telling me, ‘You’re too young to have had this happen.’”

Neal’s familiarity with everyday physical challenges guided him in his return to well-being. While competing as a student-athlete with a visual impairment among fully-sighted peers, for example, he always strove to meet the demands in stride.

“Sometimes I needed to watch the exercises a little longer to get them down,” Neal said of his experiences as a college athlete. “Sometimes it would take people once or twice. It would take me a few extra times to get it, just because I really needed to see what I needed to do; I didn’t want to mess myself up.

“I just put in the work like everybody else. It wasn’t like I had to be super adamant with everything compared to everyone else. Other than the fact that it maybe took me that one extra step to get it down, I didn’t have to work too much harder than everybody else.”

In his efforts as a fitness trainer, Neal is finding that he must push himself more than his colleagues.

“I probably have to take a lot more time than other trainers—not with the client but at home, figuring out what to do with them and getting all that stuff squared away,” he said. “I have to pay a little more attention to it because I’m visually impaired.”

Still, Neal is excited about the prospect of turning his athletic training work into a full-time career. In turn, he can tout the advantages of programs like the National Fitness Challenge—which provides Fitbit Flex 2s to participants, who can track each other in competitive groups—to strike inspiration’s flint in others and help them build it up to a blaze.

“People like competition,” Neal, who may run a 5K in July with other National Fitness Challenge participants from Indianapolis, said. “If you and your friends are in a group together, and you all have Fitbits, you can say, ‘I have more steps than you.’ You can challenge yourself and others.”


NFC Participant Highlight: Former Relay Runner Finds Motivation to Get Moving Again

By: USABA Contributor

When Emma Robinson started dialysis, ahead of a hopeful kidney transplant, her doctor recommended she lose about 20 pounds.

Robinson was up to the task, to say the least. In an effort to ditch the weight and lead a healthier lifestyle overall, Robinson strapped on a Fitbit and started counting her steps. She was given the device by the Memphis chapter of the Tennessee Association of Blind Athletes (TNABA-Memphis), in conjunction with the National Fitness Challenge.

Established in 2011, the National Fitness Challenge has impacted the lives of more than 3,000 people who are blind and visually impaired across the U.S. The overall goal remains the same every year: to raise the physical activity level of each participant, with the goal of engaging in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity and 10,000 steps a day.

And that’s exactly what the Fitness Challenge has done for Robinson, who is visually impaired -- it’s raised her activity level. But the Fitbit has transformed the experience into more than just another gym routine: this is fun, Robinson said.

Here’s how the Fitness Challenge and the partnerships work: Anthem Foundation awarded the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) grant funding for the National Fitness Challenge, as it has for the fifth year in a row -- and USABA partnered with 13 agencies across the nation to recruit participants and provide resources, along with physical activity opportunities, so that participants can reach their daily goals.

Technology plays a key role in motivating and tracking success. The funding from Anthem Foundation provided a Fitbit Flex 2 wearable device to each participant. The technology provides an accessible way for people to set goals and monitor their progress. It also introduces a level of interaction with other participants, as the 13 agencies are competing with their participants on active minutes and number of steps each month.

Robinson is a very motivated participant, to say the least. The 52-year-old is in the thick of the Fitness Challenge. She’s been an active member of TNABA-Memphis ever since the chapter formed about four years ago, she said.

Robinson learned about the organization through a school for the blind she was attending at the time.

Just the acts of joining TNABA-Memphis and staying active with the group have been life-changing for her.

“A lot of us, we didn’t do a whole lot before,” Robinson said. “(But now as a group), we do bowling, goalball, archery, beep baseball (and we have a) game night once a month.”

When she was given the opportunity to participate in the Fitness Challenge, she didn’t hesitate.

“And I’ve lost more than 15 pounds ever since I got the Fitbit,” Robinson said.

The possibility of receiving a new kidney is the spark behind much of Robinson’s motivation. She admitted it's her driving force.

“I’ll walk 30, 45 or 60 minutes a day,” she said. “Everyone knows I’m trying to get this kidney. The challenge keeps me healthy, walking and doing something.”

When asked if she had been leading the healthier lifestyle as a direct result of the Fitness Challenge, Robinson said absolutely. She described the experience as life-altering.

She typically walks with friends to get her steps in. One friend will walk five miles with her on the weekends, “and that really motivates me,” Robinson said.

The Fitbit is synced with Robinson’s iPhone, which tells her when she’s reached her daily goal. It’ll also tell her if another Fitbit user has “challenged” her.

“It says (something like, so-and-so) is 20 steps ahead!” Robinson said.

And that makes her want to keep pounding the pavement.

Robinson’s competitive spirit goes back to her youth. When she was in junior high and high school, she ran on the track team. Without missing a beat, she recalled her best events: she ran the third leg of the 4 x 400 relay and in the 100-yard dash.

Robinson lost her eyesight in 1989 due to a condition that deteriorated her optic nerve.

Although the adjustment didn’t happen overnight, Robinson said she’s OK with it now. And she really enjoys this return to a healthier lifestyle.

Robinson and her friends do a “weekend warrior”-type challenge amongst themselves where they compete to see who can log the most steps over the weekends. At the time of our conversation, she was preparing to walk in a late April 5K with TNABA. Her calendar sounded pretty booked, as she even had a group walk scheduled for the next day.

Robinson said the group would get at least two miles in, at minimum.

“(My friends and I) can all be together, and it makes each one of us more healthy,” she said.

Robinson started dialysis for her possible kidney transplant in March 2015. But even if she doesn’t get the kidney, she said she’s planning to stick with the walking.

“It makes me get up, get around and exercise,” Robinson said. “I like everything about (the Fitbit). It tracks my calories, how much water I drink, my weight and my sleeping. Everybody should have one.”

The National Fitness Challenge is just the beginning for Robinson.

It might not be the third leg of a 4 x 400 relay, “but this is really the best thing, compared to just going to the gym.”

It’s estimated that the 11 million Americans who are blind and visually impaired do not participate in any physical activity. The U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, in partnership with state organizations such as TNABA-Memphis, aims to change that through this partnership with Anthem Foundation.
 


NFC Participant Feature: Adams is Rising

By: Ryan Lucas, USABA Contributor

Like gravitational pull, the urge to give up brings a person down.

Pipi Adams now defies the nagging tug of that force, using fitness ownership and self-will to keep rising, relying on outside energy—WE Fit Wellness staff and the Anthem/USABA National Fitness Challenge, in particular—to boost her upward trajectory.

The lesson came with a little sweat and a bit of lung pain. On March 18, at the Lucky Laces 5K/10K in Denver, she removed the added weight of rank and standings and just kept ascending—all the way to the finish line.

“That race, I learned that it was my race,” Adams, a 36-year-old Denver resident with a visual impairment, said. “Whether we were walking or jogging, we were talking, and I kept saying I wanted to see how everyone else was doing, if they’d finished yet. I had this idea in my head that I was going to come in last, and I was really worried about that.

“She (guide runner Jennifer Johnson) was like, ‘This is YOUR race. You’re not here to race against these people. You’re here for YOU.’ That was something I really took to heart.”

In the past, including with the first two iterations of the National Fitness Challenge—a program that allows USABA to partner with agencies across the nation, empowering youth and adults with visual impairments to improve their fitness levels—Adams said she might have stopped, finding contentment without finishing the race. But with that reinforcement from her guide runner, she kept moving.

“She really encouraged me to keep going,” Adams said of Johnson. “I was almost overheated because I didn’t know what to wear; I was in pants and a long-sleeved shirt because it was cold that morning. But she said, ‘Even if you walk it, we’re going to finish it,’ and that was really encouraging.

“When I did finish, I felt amazing. I was like, ‘I just did my first 10K!’

Adams added a 5K finish on April 23 at the Cherry Creek Sneak in Denver. While a cold dampened her drive to complete the 10K, she continued the approach of individual-centered progress she had set in March.

Rather than dwell on her position among the other competitors with visual impairments that day, she focused within, pushing herself with the thought that she belonged to a team. That motivational tactic helped Adams cut 30 seconds of her per-mile pace.

“It wasn’t a comparison; it was more like, ‘I hope the others are enjoying their race and doing well,’ that kind of thing,” she said of wondering about the other WE Fit Wellness runners. “It was more camaraderie.”

That solidarity also stems from the Fitbit Flex 2, which the National Fitness Challenge provides to every participant and its many interactive functions. Adams synchs her Fitbit with other WE Fit Wellness members’ to gauge her progress. Jessica Beecham—the program director at WE Fit Wellness, a Denver nonprofit organization that seeks to provide wellness solutions for all members—is Adams’ biggest source of encouragement.

“I do really well with that,” Adams said. “Having the access helps keep you motivated. Jessica’s my friend on there, so I can see how she’s been doing for the week.

“It just helps to keep me motivated because she runs, I don’t know, four million miles a week.”

Adams, who owns her own nanny business and serves as secretary of the National Federation of the Blind’s Mile High chapter, receives inspiration from another important source. Her 8-year-old daughter, Savannah, is a guide-runner-in-training, having completed the Lucky Laces and Cherry Creek Sneak with her mother.

“You might say my fitness is for me first, but a lot of it is because I want to be around in the future for her,” Adams said. “I want to be in my daughter’s life for a very long time. Before I really started working out, I knew that if I didn’t change my ways, I wouldn’t be here in the future.”

By the year’s end, Adams would like to have Savannah at her side as her sole guide runner—although her daughter may need some training, too.

“She really enjoys it until about the last mile, and then she complains,” Adams said, laughing. “She also goes out there in shoes not appropriate for running, so it’s funny.

“She’s been really good, though, until about the last mile. She’s enjoyed herself and enjoyed being there with me; she’s just gotten tired.”

In-race fatigue aside, Adams strives to teach Savannah the magnitude of fitness as a lifelong benefit.

“Obesity runs in my family, and I want it to be her lifestyle as a child, to be active and healthy,” Adams said. “I don’t want her to struggle the way I did because I didn’t have that as a child. I always ate processed, crappy food, and exercise was never a priority. I really want to instill that in her at a young age, the idea that taking care of your body is really important because it’s really hard at 36 to do it now.”

To accentuate that point, Adams is also preparing to take on another major life challenge. This summer, in addition to the work for her business and the once-a-week class she teaches at the Colorado Center for the Blind, she will return to school, pursuing a holistic nutrition degree and chef certification at the National Therapy Institute in Denver.

As she seeks to achieve other goals for 2017—completing a fu