Almanac

Cover Story - April 20, 2011

Looking for that spark

Riekes Center works with the VA in helping injured veterans and others ignite their 'spark'

by Barbara Wood

Troy Williams, a pony-tailed military veteran who grew up in Menlo Park and now lives in Redwood City, says he came home from military duty six years ago with a mysterious stomach ailment that left him unable to gain weight and hardly able to get out of bed, let alone hold a job.

"This past six years I've been sitting it out," he says.

Then, late last year, he joined a program that Menlo Park's Riekes Center had begun in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It is the only thing that has made any significant difference in my life for the past six years," Mr. Williams says. "As soon as I started coming here, I began to feel better," he adds, as he pedals an exercise bicycle. "It makes you want to work your body, coming here. It's creative exercise."

Since starting at Riekes, he has gained 25 pounds. "It's one of the only things I look forward to," Mr. Williams admits. "I look forward to beating myself up so badly, it hurts for three days."

Mr. Williams is exercising his way back to health at what may be one of the Peninsula's best-kept secrets. The Riekes Center is in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood of unincorporated Menlo Park in a sprawling collection of industrial buildings.

Chances are, those who have heard of Riekes thinks it's a gym for high school jocks. But poke your head inside and you'll see immediately that this is way more than a gym.

Yes, the center has rooms filled with the latest equipment for athletic training and rehabilitation. But wander the buildings' labyrinth of corridors and something new is around every corner. Here, music drifts from recording studios and practice rooms, while upstairs the smell of chemicals wafts from the photo darkroom, next to the nature awareness classroom.

Back downstairs, past the weight-lifting area, a group of students on an intersession break from Everest and Summit high schools play drums in a circle. The area is sometimes a batting cage; other times a concert stage. Another intersession group works on computers in a brightly lit laboratory.

Outside one of the back doors, reached by crossing the indoor sprint track, is a fire pit and student-made wood-fired oven, where students learn to cook and to start fires using friction.

Inside again, past artificial turf, a shock-absorbing wood floor, racks of giant exercise balls and contraptions with moveable rubber straps that add resistance to exercises, is the "video barn," where students practice all things video. In a neighboring room that feels like a converted garage, a piano and students' in-progress artworks are stored.

There are photos everywhere, hundreds of them. All available walls are plastered with photos of current and former students, plus articles about their successes and testimonials about how Riekes, officially named the Riekes Center for Human Enhancement, changed their lives.

Since the center partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Riekes has housed special equipment to accommodate veterans with physical disabilities who have been coming for classes and to work out. They join an already diverse group of students, from elementary school-age kids to retirees, from those recovering from an injury to professional athletes.

In addition to special adaptive equipment installed in the workout areas and an adaptive archery set-up, the center hopes to offer wheelchair basketball and tennis, sit volleyball and goal ball for those with visual impairments, in the full-court gymnasium.

The philosophy at Riekes also sets it apart from the typical gym, says Athletic Director Ron Curcio. "You don't join — you become a student. This is a university of learning," he says. "Everybody who comes in here is a student," Mr. Curcio says. "Everybody is equal."

All Riekes' students, young or old, aspiring Olympians or concert pianists, have a program customized to help them meet their individual goals, he says. "We want to say, 'What are YOU interested in?'"

The center also prides itself on not turning anyone away who can't afford the fees. As many as a third of the students either receive scholarships or work to cover their programs' cost.

All students at the center must sign a contract called the RPM (for Riekes Philosophy and Methodology) Guidelines for Building Positive Culture. Each student agrees to supervise himself, communicate honestly, and be sensitive to others. Profanity, bullying and put-downs are all outlawed, as are lengthy conversations that don't involve everyone in the immediate vicinity.

Students also agree to train safely, manage their time efficiently, and keep track of their progress toward meeting their training goals.

Break the rules, and no matter who they are, students will be suspended from the program. The suspension is short on a first infraction and permanent for repeated violations.

The Riekes instructors have adapted their programs to work with veterans whose disabilities include missing limbs, visual impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injury.

Some of the veterans come in several times a week with their VA recreation therapists; others come on their own, including those getting in shape as part of the VA's Motivate Obese Veterans Everywhere (MOVE) program.

Veterans come from as far as the Livermore and San Jose VA programs as well as Menlo Park and Palo Alto. The ultimate goal is for them to learn enough to come to Riekes on their own, or to transfer their skills to a gym closer to home.

Riekes instructors also go to the veterans, for activities such as a workshop on drum-making this month, and participation in last month's Creative Arts Festival and a digital photography workshop.

The VA partnership aims "to create total wellness" by combining athletic training, nature awareness, and arts and music says Athletic Director Curcio.

Gerald Schock comes to Riekes from San Lorenzo twice a week and says he would come more often if he could, despite the fact that each visit costs him at least $10 in gas and bridge tolls. Three years ago a car hit Mr. Schock's motorcycle, splitting his helmet and leaving him in a coma for three weeks. His left leg was later amputated after a bone infection set in.

The program is modified for Mr. Schock's disability. When the others use exercise bikes or treadmills, he is helped into Riekes' "Alter G" machine that allows him to walk or jog upright on a treadmill with the help of technology that takes as much as 80 percent of his weight off his lower body. The machine helps those with injuries or even who are paralyzed, to exercise.

"I really like the way they do it," Mr. Schock says of Riekes. "They modify a workout for me ... so you don't feel like you're left out."

Mr. Schock, who has a prosthetic leg, is becoming more and more independent. On a recent visit he walked twice the length of the 70-yard indoor sprint track without his crutch.

When an onlooker says, "I thought you told me last week you can't walk," Mr. Schock answers with a chuckle: "I can't. I call this hobbling."

The VA partnership program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Paralympics Division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which wants to have Paralympic sport programs in 250 American cities by 2012.

The program's website says: "With 21 million physically disabled Americans, including more than 35,000 military personnel who've been severely injured during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is an important community need."

An additional grant is paying for veterans to take the center's fine arts programs, while other veterans receive scholarships for classes not covered by either grant.

Caroline Wyman, the VA's chief of recreation therapy service in Menlo Park, says the partnership in working well. "They've been incredible," says Ms. Wyman. "What we do, and what they do at Riekes, is work on your ability, not your disability."

Both Riekes and the recreation therapists look for each person's "spark" and work on igniting it, she says.

Alisa Krinsky, a recreation therapist supervisor at the Palo Alto VA, explains that recreation therapists work with patients in many different areas including mental health, fitness and wellness, long-term-care and rehabilitation. Their goal, she says, is to prevent re-hospitalization; to help the veterans function comfortably in the community.

Riekes Athletic Director Ron Curcio may be the perfect person to head this program. He has spent more than 17 years in the business of training athletes, but also has worked with athletes training for the Paralympics, an international competition for athletes with disabilities that occurs immediately after the winter and summer Olympics. Mr. Curcio says he hopes to be able to offer scholarships for athletes to pay for the special wheelchairs used in wheelchair athletics.

Because Riekes has special equipment for those with disabilities, it can offer adaptive programs for non-veterans as well. They include Zack Wenz, a Menlo-Atherton High School senior who has been using a wheelchair since he was paralyzed following an accident a little more than two years ago. Mr. Wenz was a Riekes' student since before the accident and was named "Most Valuable Player" on M-A's varsity tennis team his freshman year.

Now he is looking to compete in the Paralympics. "Sports is like my life," Mr. Wenz says. "Sports and my girlfriend, now."

Mentoring is something Riekes encourages for all its students. Once they become proficient at a skill, they teach it to others. Mr. Curcio says they hope to soon have the veterans also mentoring younger students.

The influence of the Riekes philosophy goes far beyond the center. Founder Gary Riekes says that while about 2,000 or more students study on site, off-site the center staff works with more than 6,000, including those participating in other wellness programs.

Menlo School's new athletic center uses Riekes staff and their training philosophy, and East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring students come to the center to improve their fitness and lose weight. The center even has a partner at Daraja Academy in Kenya, which uses the center's guidelines for culture and values.

Go to Riekes.org for information on the Riekes Center, located at 3455 Edison Way in unincorporated Menlo Park. Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener from Woodside who has written the "Dispatches from the Home Front" column for the Almanac since 1991.

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