ELLSWORTH— Unless it is pouring rain, half a dozen or so older adults can be seen briskly walking around Knowlton Park most Wednesday mornings. On another day, other men and women throw jabs and punches there with a boxing trainer. All share a determination to stay physically fit in the face of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
The 25-to 30-odd seniors, who have been working out in weekly organized sessions in the city’s park on State Street, were participants in Friends in Action’s fitness program. The classes were previously held along with many other activities and services in the Moore Community and Conference Center on State Street. On Aug. 28, due to the Ellsworth schools’ COVID-19-driven restructuring of classes, the nonprofit organization had to halt its on-site programs and activities in the Moore Center to make room for the Down East Family YMCA’s remote learning/child-care center for K-eighth grade students. The program provides care before school, after school or on school days when students don’t have in-person classes. The YMCA already operated its early childhood program in the building.
The YMCA, which manages the Moore Center owned by the city, offered to house Friends in Action’s fitness classes at the James Russell Wiggins Center as well as provide free access to its fitness class members. But many of the affected seniors, who are at risk for COVID-19-related complications, were concerned about potentially exposing themselves to a greater number of people and risking their health.
Rather than cancel the classes, Friends in Action’s then fitness program director Machelle LaHaye and fitness instructor Europa Hagerman took the nonprofit’s Walk & Chat, Strength and Balance and Rock Steady Boxing classes outdoors and up State Street to Knowlton Park. There, the Rock Steady class’s members, whose exercise regimen helps slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, have kept up their strenuous drills while the other classes focus on balance, strength training and other exercise.
LaHaye and Hagerman recently formed their own business and are no longer affiliated with Friends in Action.
“We will not let these fitness classes stop,” LaHaye declared last week. “Our heart goes into this. If you do that, you can’t go wrong.”
Friends in Action’s Executive Director Jo Cooper still works from the Moore Center. While the organization’s fitness classes and other programming are on hold, demand for the organization’s many free services remains strong as ever. Friends’ clients require assistance getting to and from doctor’s appointments. With the virus threat persisting, the seniors are sticking to home and rely on volunteers to do their grocery shopping and pick up their medications. Volunteers also are delivering 100 meals per week for Ellsworth’s Everybody Eats community meal, the First Congregational Church of Ellsworth’s Welcome Table and the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill’s Simmering Pot.
In addition, Cooper is working on instituting a 211 telephone number, similar to 911, enabling Friends’ clients to call the nonprofit for assistance and services.
As for in-person classes and activities, Friends in Action’s director has every intent to resume and even expand them when conditions permit. All her life, daily exercise has been essential to her own well-being. Over a decade ago, she launched the nonprofit’s fitness classes such as Bone Builders with volunteer instructors such as Anne Bancroft. Over the years, the program greatly expanded to include classes ranging from Walk & Chat to the licensed franchise Rock Steady Boxing taught by paid staff.
Cooper’s aim remains to ensure seniors have access to free and low-cost classes.
“Particularly in an older population, activity is really an antidote for any condition whether it is heart disease or memory loss. I felt we had developed a lot of great programming and the plan is to reopen. It’s on hold now” she said this week. “We have an opportunity to reimagine and bring in a whole set of reprogramming. I see it serving a large group of people with low-vision, stroke survivors as well as Parkinson’s.”
With outdoor temperatures dropping, and fall and winter looming, LaHaye and Hagerman have found an indoor alternative to Knowlton Park for their students to safely continue their fitness program. As of this week, the Rock Steady class’s members are working with their trainers in spacious, sanitized areas at CrossFit Acadia on the Bucksport Road and at Libitzki School of Dance’s Washington Street studio.