New fitness center brings hope to those with physical challenges

Drexel on the Road

PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — What do a former Pensacola police officer, a former corrections officer, and a former college softball player have in common? The obvious answer is that they are all in wheelchairs, paralyzed from either the waist, or the chest, down. But the real tie that binds them? They each share the same answer.

“I’m an overcomer.”

Their stories of injury are different.

Jerry Henderson was a Pensacola police officer when he was ambushed and shot in 1984 by a man he had previously arrested. Chris Hankinson was injured in the explosion 5 years ago at the Escambia County Jail. Tara Blackwell was a scholarship softball player at Troy University when in 2005, on a road trip to Nashville, “I was doing a backflip and was paralyzed from the chest down.”

None of them will likely ever walk again. But in a new and innovative fitness center in Ensley, Florida they and others who are disabled are “stepping up” to life. The gym is filled with adaptive exercise equipment which helps the clients move their limbs, or which moves the limbs for them. The fitness programs are adaptable to each client’s disability. It’s a place where those who are in wheelchairs, or who have other physical or motor skills disabilities, can feel “at home.”

“A lot of times, people look, at you in a wheelchair and that’s all they see,” says Henderson. “Yet, we’re still so capable of doing so many things in life and achieving so many goals.”

Tara Blackwell is the owner and the formidable force behind The 7 Project Adaptive Fitness gym. She opened it in April, on the 14th anniversary of her injury.

Blackwell: “I opened the gym because I realized when I dedicated to improving my overall wellness it created not only a better quality of life, but more opportunity. I realized there was truly nothing I could not do as long as I took care of myself. I wanted to create the tools and resources and platform for others to have that same opportunity to provide that sense of normalcy.”

Blackwell, in a wheelchair with a lift that puts her into a standing position, was working hard on a modified jump rope when we visited. Other clients were boxing, using various arm machines, working on their ability to balance. With certified personal trainers and adaptive equipment, Tara and staff provide a place where those in wheelchairs and with other disabilities can feel comfortable as they pursue a program of wellness, much like they did before their injuries. Henderson looks forward to seeing his friends at the gym.

“You meet people on a similar path,” says Henderson. “Our stories are different but our journeys are what make a special bond. I know they understand what I’m going through and they know I understand what they’re going through and that’s just a great thing to have.”

Hankinson says the fitness center helps him set and achieve fitness goals that are part of his new normal. “I don’t have my legs so my arms are my legs now and I have to take care of them. She (Tara) has a lot of equipment that is adaptable to most people with disabilities.”

Tara has something else. She has the attitude of an overcomer. I asked her if she ever has a down day.

“Of course,” Tara answered, “I have them all the time. But I’ve learned I have to make the conscious effort and decision every single day and every single night that I’m going to move forward. I realize no one else is going to do this for me. I have to do it for myself.”

And, she does for today and for tomorrow. “If you work on the day to day wellness in your life, you’re going to be prepared for whatever is to come.”

For Henderson, that “whatever” came a few days ago when, with the help of adaptive equipment, he stood for the first time in 10 years.

“It just felt so good. There’s still so many things I can do,” says Henderson.

Everyone in the gym celebrated.

“I already see a family being created, which was one of the things at the top of my agenda,” says Tara.

The fitness center has programs for a number of disabilities, not just paralysis. For more information on The 7 Project Adaptive Fitness Center you can check out their Facebook page or go to their website or call them at 850-972-9555.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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