Volunteers coach disabled at YMCA

A program at the Hanover YMCA pairs volunteer coaches with disabled workout partners

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
At the South Shore YMCA, Sally Cochrane can enjoy her own workout while her husband, Robert, who is disabled, is assisted by a volunteer coach.

Friends help friends. Sometimes that help means pushing them to places they didn’t think they could go.

“C’mon, you can do it - a little more, just a little more,’’ James Fitzpatrick of Hanover said, gently urging his friend on an adaptive weight machine.

Robert Cochrane of Marshfield grumbled - and obliged, cranking out a couple more repetitions on the machine at the South Shore YMCA Mill Pond Branch in Hanover.


Both are in the Y’s Partnership Program, which started in 2009 and teams volunteers with people with disabilities, to help get them through a workout, a service free of charge to Y members. Swim programs are also available.

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The program is unlike any other in the area because it matches people with disabilities or special needs with volunteers, based on skill sets as well as personalities, said James Bunnell, executive director of the Mill Pond Y. That combination often results in lasting friendships, like the one between Cochrane and Fitzpatrick.

“Yeah, he’s terrible, terrible,’’ the 78-year-old Cochrane snapped when asked if his his 67-year-old coach pushes him too hard, before a smile belied his complaining as he added, “Nah, I think he’s very good for me.’’

Cochrane’s wife, Sally, can vouch for that. Her husband, a retired MBTA employee counselor and Marine veteran of the Korean War, suffered a pair of strokes 10 years ago. After his benefits that provided physical therapy ran out, he had become totally dependent on her for everything, including workouts.

“We’d come to the Y before, but I had to take him around the machines myself and couldn’t do my own workout,’’ she said. “Then we heard about this program, and it’s great, they do so much with Bob. And while we’re here, I can get my own workout in as well and know he’s being cared for.’’


Fitzpatrick knows what Cochrane is going through. During a business meeting in Atlanta eight years ago, he collapsed and suffered a brain aneurysm and heart attack that put him in intensive care for five weeks. His road to recovery was long and hard, he said, but helped greatly by his workouts at the Y and support from the Hanover-based Brain Aneurysm Foundation and the Norwell Visiting Nurse Association.

“I met the most extraordinary people in those agencies I ever met in my entire life,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “I love being able to give back, that’s why I do this.’’

In the Partnership Program, Fitzpatrick works with other YMCA members who need special help four times a week, but he’s known Cochrane the longest and takes pride in his friend’s ability to bounce back from adversity.

“Bob and I argue and scream and fight once in a while,’’ he said, laughing at his friend’s curmudgeonly nature, “but he’s come so far. To see him on a bike here doing 40 minutes, and he couldn’t do two minutes without stopping when he first started. It’s just amazing.’’

Fitzpatrick said that sometimes grouchy-seeming attitude goes a long way toward recovery.


“When I was hospitalized in Atlanta, I was one agitated patient, and doctors later told me those are the best kind of patients,’’ he said. “Bob’s feisty, sure, but it works for him.’’

The program is an offshoot of one at the South Shore Y’s Quincy branch, which uses specialized equipment for patients with spinal cord injuries, said Mary Ann Catabia, assistant director of the Partnership Program in Quincy.

The Quincy program doesn’t come with volunteer trainers as does Mill Pond’s, but volunteers or personal-care assistants for individual patients can come in with the patients and get trained in how to be a coach, Catabia said.

“That way, they learn how the machines work and can work with them,’’ she said. “We have a good number of families who come in and do that, and work with their own family members.’’

At Mill Pond, program coordinator Ann Fraser expanded Quincy’s model to accommodate people with many disabilities, and last fall she opened her own business, Your Wellness Now.

Mill Pond’s Partnership Program now has 40 participants and 45 volunteers, said MaryEllen Olson, program coordinator and a personal trainer at the Hanover branch, which, with 22,000 members, is the largest YMCA in the Northeast.

“There’s no better name for this program than ‘partnership,’ ’’ said Bunnell. “We match interests and need, and from that you get great friendships.’’

Paul R. McPhee, 74, of Hanover, is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, which he said resulted from an elevator accident as a young man working on the construction of the Prudential tower in Boston. His volunteer coach is Carol Walton of Braintree.

“He’s a very strong man, and tries to do too much,’’ she said with a laugh. “I have to keep him from getting out of the chair and climbing up the machines, like he’s not supposed to.’’

“The body achieves what the mind believes,’’ McPhee said, adding with a shrug, “there are no problems, just situations.’’

Potential participants in the Partnership Program are assessed by a certified trainer and given a specially designed workout program to use with a partner, using specialized equipment. That includes five Cybex Total Access machines, which have seats that can be removed or swung aside to allow a wheelchair to fit, and built-in ramps for the chairs. The Y also has Technogym Easy Line machines, which use air cylinders to provide resistance and are beneficial to those who can’t work a lot of weight, Fitzpatrick said.

The importance of volunteers in the program can’t be overstated, Olson said.

“I’ve had multiple clients come up to me with tears in their eyes, thanking us for helping them to reach their goals, become less dependent on others, and accomplish things they never thought they could.’’

“If not for this program, he’d be bedridden,’’ Sally Cochrane said, before Fitzpatrick started a workout with her husband.

Cochrane pedaled an adaptive bicycle machine with his hands, strengthening his upper body and getting a cardiovascular workout. He looked at the bike’s timer, which had clicked off 30 minutes. Then he shot Fitzpatrick a look that said “Well?’’

“You have 10 more minutes,’’ his coach said, at which Cochrane shook his head, continued his workout, and cracked a smile - out of Fitzpatrick’s sight.

“There’s a spirit in people that just doesn’t go away,’’ Fitzpatrick said of his friend and others in the program. “And that helps.’’

For information on the Partnership Program, or to volunteer for it, contact Olson at 781-829-8585, ext. 322. Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at