How CrossFit Training Helps Special Needs Adults Build a Foundation for Life

September 11, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Jessica Escorza
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There are some cool things about CrossFit. Big lifts under the coliseum lights, PRs in your affiliate during the Open, and the day you learn a complex skill you’ve been training.

There are things even more straightforward about the joy of CrossFit that we breeze over every day, but not at Agape Village. 

A program for adults with special needs age 18 and up in Santa Clarita, CA, Agape Village has embraced fitness as not just a way to teach their students to be healthy but to better understand the world around them.

It is the brainchild of Jessica Escorza and Tim Smith, former teachers from Trinity Classical Academy in the special needs department. Agape came out of necessity as Escorza noticed that there wasn’t anywhere nearby for special needs adults to go to after they graduated high school.

  • “We wanted to provide a place where once adults were done with school, they had a place to go where they are still engaged and challenged, learning different skills. There are not a lot of programs like this in Santa Clarita, and when you look at the surrounding area programs, you need to commute, leaving parents to figure out caregiver situations and respite workers.”

Agape offers many services, including social, vocational, and functional living skills. Their goal is to provide the tools necessary for individuals to build their confidence and gain valuable skills in a supportive environment. The service Escorza is especially passionate about is adaptive fitness.

She started focusing on teaching fitness early on in her career:

  • “I got my foot in the door with adaptive fitness when I taught at Trinity and realized how much I loved it.”

After getting her degree in special education from Point Loma, Escorza started teaching at Trinity. Escorza wanted to do more because it’s challenging to incorporate fitness into the lives of special needs adults.

  • “For special needs fitness, a PE teacher often does assessments, just checking flexibility, jumping ability, and that you’re growing, etc. It’s not a structured workout for anyone.”
  • “I got free rein from our principal and was told I could build a program or design a fitness class, and we started working out at a facility near the school, which ran CrossFit-style workouts. I knew the guy who ran it, and three days a week, we would walk over from Trinity and do workouts there.”

Seeing her students in a fitness environment made Escorza think bigger. 

  • “A light bulb went off in my head where I thought, as often as I go to a gym, I never see special needs adults or people with disabilities working out.” 

She wanted to change this.

With Agape being a program for adults, the goal was to integrate them into different phases of life. They participate in volunteer and working programs to learn job and life skills, and Escorza knew fitness skills and health knowledge needed to be added in.

  • Escorza: “When we started, I got everyone memberships at Gold’s gym. We had to go there twice weekly because the program was getting more popular, and I had to take them in different groups. This was difficult, and that’s how I started brainstorming other options. Taking the 12 of them that are enrolled together was tough to juggle.”
  • “Gold’s had been wonderful with us, but I love doing whole group workouts with them, and that was not doable there.”

Escorza started looking for a facility with more room and stumbled upon CrossFit SCV when she was next door shopping for furniture.

  • “I peeked my head in, and it was when they were renovating everything. I was blown away because it was a full gym with wall-ball targets and everything. It was my type of playground.”
  • “I met the owners and told them I was looking for a place where we could consistently go, and I could bring our program as a whole group and lead an adaptive fitness workout for everyone at the same time.”

CrossFit SCV and Agape did a trial run during their summer camp program in July, which was a huge success. The members had an incredible time working out, but Escorza talks about how it is so much more than that.

  • “It helps with so many things regarding regulating emotions for them. In the classroom, I noticed that there’s less anxiety and stress. They are in a place where consistently, they’re getting to work out super hard, and they are using that as a mental break whenever they have anxiety, depression, or feeling mad or sad. A hard workout functions the same for them that it does for us.”

Besides just the benefits of fitness, Escorza uses the time to think big picture:

  • “I want them to learn the rules of a gym and how to navigate the space. I teach them the important social cues when walking into a gym, like saying hello to the front desk or giving appropriate eye contact. And when people approach them, what’s the appropriate response.”

Escorza can use fitness as a jumping-off point to many different parts of their development.

  • “It brings in more conversations about what they should be eating–what meal prep looks like, how they can balance what they love to eat and new foods, and what healthy looks like. So CrossFit has led into our life skills portion of the program.”

It has been so impactful to the members that Agape is offering a culinary arts program this coming semester.

Moving forward, Escorza is ecstatic to be part of the CrossFit program.

  • “We now have a place with space to do our program. And there’s so much freedom within the CrossFit gym to create workouts and teach movements. It’s been fun to build their workouts, and it’s a lot of team building–I always try to program something where they have to work together.”
  • “That’s another component that I see transfer from gym to classroom: their ability to work in a group and work together and problem solve.”

As much as the adaptive fitness program teaches its members, she hopes it also teaches those around it.

  • “When we get to the gym, I kid you not; they are like superstars when we walk in. And it’s just so cool. Naturally, they bring such a light and presence to anyone they meet. So when people see them working out, I hope it sparks questions or interests or more acceptance. I hope people realize this should be happening more.”

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