Fitness instructor starts special needs program at YMCA

Karen Wise inspired by son diagnosed with Down Syndrome

Photo submitted by Karen Wise
Karen Wise, left, and Cailin O'Connell doing the tree pose from yoga.
Photo submitted by Karen Wise
Karen Wise, right, flexes her muscles with her son, Gavin.
Photo submitted by Karen Wise
Jack Chaplin, left, and Gavin Wise lift weights with Karen Wise.
Photo submitted by Karen Wise
Karen Wise lifts weights with Julie Levan.

About five years ago, Karen Wise was approached by a few mothers of her son’s friends.

Her son, Gavin, born with Down Syndrome and the families were looking for exercise classes for their children with special needs.

As Wise was already teaching fitness classes at the Ed Isakson/Alpharetta YMCA, she was a perfect fit for the job.

“Our wellness director was excited to have this program at the Alpharetta Y from the start,” Wise said. “I’ve experienced nothing but support from everyone at our Y.”

The program started with one class a week held after school hours and has grown to three classes a week, including special needs Y-Fit, dance and yoga.

As someone who’s been in the fitness and wellness industry for over 30 years, Wise has experience in corporate and non-profit wellness, personal training, fitness testing and nutrition. Additionally, she is certified to teach many types of classes including Pilates, yoga, boot camp and spinning.

Currently, she is the group fitness coordinator at the Alpharetta YMCA and has taught classes there since 1999 for various groups, including children and young adults with special needs.

She’s been married to her husband, Rich, for 23 years and they have five children — Eve, Gavin, Ian, Mary Rose and Hannah.

“It was Gavin and his friends that prompted me to start the special needs fitness program at our YMCA,” Wise said. “My enthusiasm for this program, of course, stems from seeing Gavin and his friends have so much fun getting fit together.

They’ve strengthened their friendship bonds while getting in shape this summer.”
From the start, Wise said her whole family has been involved from volunteering every week with the teens and young adults.

“I couldn’t do it without Rich and the kids’ commitment to this program,” Wise said. “It’s definitely something our whole family looks forward to each week. The teens and young adults in the class literally light up when Rich and my kids walk in the room. The Wise bunch comes as a package.”

This summer, Wise said a new three-hour drop-off fitness program for two days a week began for teens and young adults with special needs.

“This idea came from a couple parents that came to me, concerned about their teens with special needs having too much screen time and not enough activity this summer,” Wise said.

However, programs for older teens and young adults with special needs can be expensive, she said. Some donations to the “WhY It Matters” campaign allowed the gym to offer the program at a very low cost for the families.

“At the Y, we put our heads together and came up with this low-cost program, consisting of Youth in Motion taught by one of our wellness coaches, Stephen Kravitz, some outdoor camp activities on the Greenway, basketball and active games and, of course, my Y-Fit and Yoga classes,” Wise said. “I’m so excited that this program has taken off and I look forward to spreading this program to other YMCAs in our area.” ■


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