By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
When Montclair resident Pilar McKenna needed a personal trainer for her daughter, she was unable to find a gym that would cater to her disability.
She said her daughter, who has autism, has needs that aren’t as involved as those of some other children with disabilities, but she still needed certain accommodations. For instance, her daughter needed to train in a small setting, she said.
“My daughter was struggling with gaining weight. She was using food as a coping mechanism. Because the way we were raising her, she didn’t feel different. She felt her difference was part of her life,” McKenna said. “And then kids started noticing [her disability]. She wouldn’t get invited to hang out with certain kids because they thought she was weird.”
McKenna said the kids’ version of “weird” is her version of “special.”
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McKenna searched for places that would accommodate children with disabilities, such as autism, but she could only find places in California or upstate New York — nothing around the area.
“It was almost impossible,” McKenna said. “What were the odds that [when] my nanny was going to the supermarket, and she was looking for a gym herself, [she] saw this ad posted on a window that said ‘program for special needs kids.’ If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have met Yomi and know of the program, because they are not available.”
Yomi Karade started the Inclusive Fitness Program at Embracing Fitness in Little Falls because her 20-year-old son, Kofi, who has autism, albinism, a visual impairment and several food allergies, couldn’t find a personal trainer that could work with his disabilities.
Karade, originally from England and now living in Caldwell, has been working with clients with autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, brain injuries, strokes, anxiety issues and various physical disabilities.
She wanted to reach out to more people who hadn’t been able to find programs to meet their families’ needs. This month, she launched “Special Needs Fitness Magazine” to help inform, connect and empower more people.
“The goal for the magazine is to promote healthy lifestyles of adults and children with disabilities, and for their parents and caregivers,” Karade said. “It’s looking at the whole picture: mental health, physical health and emotional health. And also, for them to realize that they are not alone.”
The magazine, which published its first issue on Oct. 18, and is available both in print and online, is written by individuals with disabilities, parents, doctors, therapists and inclusive rehabilitation and personal trainers.
“We have people talking about their experiences like moms. We have dads talking about their experience because dads are not as involved as the moms and they are telling their side of what they feel,” Karade said.
Sarah Gerardo, a Montclair resident, has known Karade for more than 10 years. They had something in common: both of their kids have autism. They became friends and saw how the autism population was underserved, in particular when it comes to fitness.
Gerardo’s son, Max Byrnes, a 19-year-old Montclair resident diagnosed with autism, began training with Karade in 2019. While training, Karade and Byrnes do strength training, cardio muscle toning and kick boxing. Gerardo said that the training has not only helped Byrnes with his posture, agility and flexibility but also his self-esteem.
“He loves it because especially with individuals like Max, they need to feel comfortable with who they’re working with. He is so focused with Yomi because he feels comfortable with her,” Gerardo said. “It got to a point that he feels like the gym is a safe space for him, that he is able to follow.”
Byrnes will be featured in “Special Needs Fitness Magazine” along with McKenna’s daughter.
Gerardo said she feels excited that there is a magazine that is geared toward kids with disabilities, including autism.
“I always see the parents’ magazines, and it’s very generalized for everybody. And it’s a struggle, especially when you’re looking for summer programs and extracurricular programs. It’s really geared towards this community,” Gerardo said.
McKenna said the magazine is important because it brings awareness to particular needs for families that feel isolated.
“I think the magazine can give you a sense of home,” McKenna said. “The magazine is almost curated, and it is from the point of view of the kids and the parents and connects them to resources.”
McKenna said the magazine is also a way for the larger community to learn about disabilities from people who actually have them, or from their parents.
“I want to take the article and show it to my in-laws,” McKenna said. “This is a generational thing they don’t understand. Because my child has a disability, they don’t necessarily understand the impact. And sometimes you need to read it from a different point of view. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. There’s so many little details about it.”
Gerardo also said she hopes the magazine will open up people’s ideas about autism — to expand their understanding past what they’ve seen in TV shows like “The Good Doctor” or movies like “Rain Man.”
“There are kids out there that are non-verbal or kids who stem the whole day. Or a kid that you might be talking to for four hours and not respond to you, or look you in the eye, but they completely understand what you’re saying,” Gerardo said. “I think it’s important for people to see the other side of the cookie-cutter characters to really understand what all this is all about.”
Even though the magazine is coming out this month, Karade is still looking for stories from families with people with disabilities. She said she wants the magazine to be a community experience, somewhere people can send stories and resources that can help make those with disabilities visible.
“My wish is for everyone to realize that this community exists and we need just to stick our head out of the water showing everybody: ‘listen, we exist,’” Karade said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“Special Needs Fitness Magazine” will be available online at specialneedsfitnessmagazine.com, and Karade has plans to make it available in schools, doctor’s offices, day programs and gyms locally, as well as in some parts of the United Kingdom, Canada, Dubai and Ghana, where she knows individuals who can help her distribute it.