STATE COLLEGE, CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — A fitness program in our area is creating an inclusive environment for everyone.

Dr. Belanger at a cardio drumming class at Grace Lutheran Church in State College

“We know that individuals with disabilities tend to be eight times less likely to be physically active than their peers,” Dr. Jonna Belanger, Ph.D., a professor with the Kinesiology Department at Penn State, said. “So a program like this opens access to physical activity.”

Dr. Belanger and PSU students run Happy Valley FitLink for free. It’s a wellness community dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities get physical activity.

“Our main goal is to create an environment that our friends feel welcomed,” Dr. Belanger explained. “That they can come to FitLink and know that they can be themselves, that they can be welcomed and they can get some fitness out of it as well. I think a lot of programs want to be inclusive and they have the heart to be inclusive, but participants sometimes self-limit.”

A PSU student & Happy Valley FitLink intern instructs a cardio drumming class

The program provides three weekly fitness classes. They also offer wellness seminars.

“Individuals with disabilities aren’t any different from those without a disability,” Jacob Corey, a co-founder of FitLink, explained. “It is more so just a label that we as society has put on somebody when in all reality it’s not anything that is different.”

Corey helped come up with the concept a few years back when he was a senior at Penn State.

“It became apparent to me that they really didn’t have the opportunity that I myself had as a Penn State student to be able to go to different gyms,” Corey said. “Not only on campus, but also in the State College area.”

Students from all over join a fitness class via Zoom

A group that was formed with a focus on inclusion has continued to grow into a family. The reach even goes beyond Happy Valley and our surrounding communities.

They offer their classes on zoom as well, welcoming people from all over.

“We’ve got individuals in Tennessee, we have folks in California and in Michigan as well,” Dr. Belanger, said. “We’ve had folks reach out to us from Louisiana, Indiana and Illinois, so our outreach is continuing to grow.”

Each class offers a workout and a little more.

Participants say hi to those attending class via Zoom

With every calorie burned, there’s acceptance. With every move, there’s encouragement to be yourself. And at the core of the training is fun, which helps build confidence and leaves everyone with a sense of belonging.

“Just to open up doors to physical activity and fitness and really open a community to individuals who may feel like they don’t have a place to be,” Dr. Belanger, said. “It’s just soul enriching to give an opportunity to someone to be part of the community, but they truly give me so much more than I could ever give them.”

All of the classes Happy Valley FitLink provides are free.

A group gathers during cardio drumming class at Grace Lutheran Church in State College

Virtual classes are open to all ages, but anyone younger than 18 is asked to have a parent or caregiver in the room to help.

We’re told a lot of the classes don’t require any equipment that you can’t find at your house.

Reach out to Maggie Smolka if you know someone or an organization that’s making it matter in the community. You can email or message her on Facebook.

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