The story of how a near-fatal traffic accident is transforming a health club into a world-class facility for people living with a spinal chord injury. It is written by Ray Algar, founder of Gymtopia.
Mike Alpert’s early career was as a Californian stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers, but it was a move to Oregon that profoundly changed his life. He had been drawn to Oregon for the winter skiing, but soon after arriving decided with a close friend to create The Athletic Club of Bend, a new multi-use athletic, aquatic, tennis and social club. One programme they started was for children with severe physically disabilities called ‘US Able Oregon’ and Mike began twice-weekly warm water pool sessions with a 5-year-old boy living with severe spina bifida. Alpert was always struck by the joy these sessions brought to a boy who would never walk again and asked himself why the club was not doing more programmes like this. “I became somewhat obsessed with wanting to do more of these kinds of things. That 5-year-old boy changed my life and gave me meaning” Alpert says.
Alpert eventually returned to California where since 1997 he has been the president and CEO of The Claremont Club. Founded in 1973, the health club, fitness and wellness centre nestles in seven and a half hectares (19 acres) in the city of Claremont, around 52 kilometres east of downtown Los Angeles where it serves more than 10,000 members. The inclusive operating philosophy that Alpert embedded in his earlier Oregon club is evident here, which is why this year it was the recipient of IHRSA’s Outstanding Community Service Award. Each year, IHRSA selects one club making a difference in, and beyond, their community.
Living Well After Cancer Programme
“I feel like I am trying to run away from my cancer when I am on the treadmill” says Linda Johnson, a The Claremont Club member. Johnson used to describe herself as a ‘professional couch potato’ but that was before she enrolled onto the club’s ‘Living Well After Cancer Programme – private donations enable the programme to be delivered without charge. The programme is a collaboration between The Claremont Club and Pomona Valley Hospital’s cancer care centre where over 13 weeks men and women take part in fitness conditioning, nutrition workshops and support group meetings. 790 people (at June 2016) have now completed the programme, who experience higher self-esteem, become fitter and report their quality of life has been enriched. Due to its popularity, the club now offers a free one-year programme for children and young adults living with cancer.
The club for those living with a spinal chord injury
In 2007, Hal Hargrave a Claremont Club member was involved in a road traffic accident that resulted in a life-changing spinal chord injury. After one year his insurance company stopped paying for rehabilitation and Hal was in limbo until the Claremont Club stepped in and offered to convert a single 84 square metre (900 square feet) racquetball court into a therapy gym. However, it soon became evident that there were many other people with spinal chord injuries needing ongoing rehabilitation. So what started as the conversion of a single court has extended into a 474 square metre (5,100 square feet) world-class facility called the ‘Project Walk® Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center’ supporting approximately 80 full time clients. Hal has since formed ‘The Be Perfect Foundation’, a nonprofit organisation that supports people living with paralysis. Project Walk is a fee-based programme as the centre employs seven specialist staff, but the club financially supports people, on a case-by-case basis. Close family members receive complementary club membership so that they can recuperate and also not have to witness their loved ones go through what can be very distressing therapy. Approximately 300 people living with paralysis have experienced Project Walk to date. Lives are being transformed with some people making such remarkable progress in both their physical and mental wellbeing that they are subsequently hired to work at the club.
A place where the health club and healthcare industries intersect
Alpert believes that a club should be more than a domain for those predisposed to physical activity – a playground for ‘active affluents’. His passion for supporting people affected by a life-changing injury or illness comes from his belief that exercise really is a medicine. It is an operating philosophy that is allowing his club to straddle fitness and healthcare. “We have the ability to reach out and really help people struggling with chronic injuries and illnesses,” says Alpert. “In so many cases these people have been written off and forgotten. Exercise is medicine. Isn’t it time we take the lead in merging the experts in healthcare with the experts in fitness? Why do they continue to work so independently of each other when we know that exercise has such a powerful affect on health?”
What does your club believe in?
So helping people living with paralysis may not form part of your club’s distinctive story, but what does your business believe in? What I believe is that as competitive pressure intensifies, it is clubs like The Claremont that will flourish because their staff, employees, management, investors and other stakeholders know that what they are doing is transformative and genuinely remarkable. So ask yourself: are others saying the same about our organisation?