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Daughter inspires fitness plan keyed to special needs

Leah Borst
Special to The Detroit News

Todd Turner was frustrated he couldn’t find a fitness facility to serve his 7-year-old daughter Amarissa, who has Down syndrome and autism. So he opened his own.

With the help of his brother, Paul, Turner started Team GUTS in Ferndale, a nonprofit housed in an 11,000-square-foot facility dedicated to offering fitness classes, strength training and sports camps for children and adults with disabilities.

“I realized when Amarissa was little that there is not a lot out there for kids with special needs,” said Turner, who has a background in exercise science. “There’s no other facility in the state of Michigan that is a year-round, indoor sports facility for people with special needs. We offer them a place to be themselves and feel secure. To do the things that everyone else does.”

Team GUTS, named from the evidence-based Ground Up Training System, aims to improve the lives of the special needs community, which is underserved in the fitness area, Turner said.

“It would be ideal for children and adults with disabilities to have the option to participate in inclusive recreation with their non-disabled peers, but unfortunately those opportunities are minimal,” said Leslynn Angel, president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Metro Detroit. “So programs like Team GUTS are much needed to promote both health and social opportunities for those with disabilities.”

Area gyms, dance studios, community recreation centers and YMCAs also offer classes or programs for people with disabilities, but Team GUTS is the only business focused strictly on those with special needs year round.

Sterling Heights offers among its seasonal recreation programs for those with special needs dance, bowling, baseball, softball and basketball. Special Olympics Michigan provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Elite Cheer Michigan in Chesterfield Township and the Pride of Trilogy in Shelby Township offer special needs cheer teams. The Miracle League of Michigan provides children with disabilities the opportunity to play league baseball in the spring and summer.

“When you have a child with special needs, it’s harder to get your child into sports. It’s hard for them to fit in,” Turner said. “All kids need to be active, and these kids need more activity to help with anxiety, stress, physical health and mental health. As these kids with special needs get older and out of the school system, they are doing even less physical activity.”

For example, research shows many children and adolescents with Down syndrome have low fitness levels and battle obesity because of a lack of social and recreational opportunities, according to the publication Down Syndrome Research and Practice.

That is the main reason Turner and his brother decided to serve all individuals with disabilities, not just children.

The organization offers programs such as dance classes, martial arts, one-on-one training, soccer, yoga and Zumba classes.

The facility at 1008 Orchard opened in August and features an open fitness room with padded floors for Zumba, dance and martial arts classes, as well as a weight room and separate turfed area for baseball, soccer or other sports.

Martial arts classes feature therapeutic exercises and activities with an instructor who is trained in disabilities, Turner said. Melanie Johnson, who is certified to teach Autism Movement Therapy for young children, teens and adults, leads dance classes.

“Every Saturday we have the Latin-inspired Zumba classes,” he said. “It really gets them moving.”

Turner said the one-on-one trainings are very popular and offer an experienced personal trainer to help individuals with special needs increase muscle mass and stay in shape. A registered dietitian is also available to help teach proper diet.

Most classes come at a fee, such as a 6-week Zumba class for $50.

“We have scholarships for people who can’t afford it, too,” Turner said. “We are also looking to partner with groups, we want to help people.”

Leah Borst is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

To learn more about Team GUTS, visit www.teamgutsmichigan.com.