The Mission Project effort tackles healthy living, long-term quality of life for members with disabilities

Personal trainer Tim Crough works with Ellen Dirnberger on strength. Photo courtesy of The Mission Project.
Personal trainer Tim Crough works with Ellen Dirnberger on strength. Photo courtesy of The Mission Project.

The Mission Project, long known for its work to help adults with developmental disabilities live independently and safely in the community, is taking on a new challenge: keeping those adults healthy as they age so they can continue to enjoy productive lives.

Participants in the Mission Project live on their own in apartments not far from the Sylvester Powell Community Center where they are all members. But many of the adults, who may have Down Syndrome, autism or other cognitive disabilities, can face health issues as they grow older. That impedes the dignified, community life that the Mission Project was designed to provide.

“It’s not just about exercise. It’s about transformation to a healthy lifestyle,” said Mission Project Executive Director Sarah Mai. “What is really going to allow these adults to live independently for as long as possible? They have to be healthy,” she said. Nutrition will be a big part of the effort as well as exercise and movement.

“They don’t drive,” Mai said of the Mission Project members. “They have to walk.” And that means often walking to jobs and up stairs to their apartments. “We needed to look at (maintaining) their quality of life for as long as possible.”

Two grants – $10,000 from the Westerman Foundation and $24,000 from the McGowan Foundation – will let the Mission Project launch its effort to improve the long-term health of the members with new approaches and to document the results. Mai hopes the outcomes from the one-year grant period will be significant enough to renew the grants. Collecting data also will show which of the innovative approaches are successful in motivating the members.

Tim Crough, who is a personal trainer, has worked with Mission Project members for years. He was chosen as the professional to help implement the project because of his work with special needs populations. “This is really breaking ground,” Crough said. The norm, he added, has been to accept that their health would decline as they age.

Crough will be working with members to make exercise fun, which may be different for each person and involve different strategies. He will try to find partners to match their level of fitness and keep them motivated. The members have unique health issues based on their disability, Mai said.

The goal for the project, which also will involve occupational therapy students from Rockhurst University, is to show health benefits for 30 members.