Touched by an Angel

By Kathy Gresey - Northwest Newsgroup

Niggemann, who suffered a debilitating brain injury nine years ago, meets with Hayashi for four hours a week to build muscle tone and increase flexibility. Hayashi is a personal trainer with a penchant for helping disabled people become more physically fit.

Instead of focusing on the typical athlete trying to gain an edge or the person on a self-improvement quest, she specializes in helping people with Down syndrome, attention-deficit disorder and other challenging conditions.

The Cary resident has been working with the disabled for more than two years.

“I find different ways for people to do what I want them to do,” Hayashi said. “The more physically fit you are, the more nerve pathways you open up. I love helping people go beyond their existence. I want them to live, not just exist.”

Niggemann, 30, of Wauconda hired Hayashi two years ago. His left hand, once closed tightly, now can be opened with little force. His body is stronger, enabling him to shower on his own and walk with assistance.

“Stephanie is an angel that was sent to me,” Niggemann said. “I tell her that every day.”

Hayashi instructs Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association karate classes at Focus Martial Arts and Fitness in Lake in the Hills. She also has personal clients, some through her new business, The Fitness Connection.

“I go to people’s homes ... and whatever special need they have, I work on it,” Hayashi said. “We come up with a plan.”

Tresa Opletal of McHenry enrolled her learning disabled sons – Joshua, 7, and 10-year-old Nathan – in karate classes at Focus Martial Arts about a year ago.

Opletal said Hayashi had helped her children develop skills through multisensory instruction.

“She’ll physically touch them, and show them the moves,” she said. “If something doesn’t work, she tries something else. She’s very hands-on.”

Helping people become stronger and more independent is fulfilling, said Hayashi, who is working on a book that will include training exercises for individuals with special needs.

“I’d like to get [training] to people who aren’t in big towns and who don’t have access to a trainer,” she said. “There aren’t any books out there.”

Finding a trainer can be daunting for individuals with disabilities, but worth it, she added.

“Keep working to find someone you trust,” she said. “Talk to your physician. Don’t give up.”