As a support counselor at Jubilee Association of Maryland, Jared Ciner worked with the agency to provide services to adults with developmental disabilities. But when he began researching exercise programs for his clients, the University of Maryland graduate came up empty.
“I realized that all of the people I was working with at the agency had being more physically active listed as one of their goals,” Ciner said. “Meanwhile, I couldn’t find any resources or programs to encourage them to participate in or bring them to.”
That’s how Ciner founded Spirit Club. Opened in April 2013, the club offered fitness courses to adults with disabilities to encourage them to eat healthy and exercise regularly. Based in Kensington, Spirit Club has classes in locations in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and is seeking to expand to Baltimore.
Ciner — who is working with FX Studios, which built the corporate gym for Under Armour, to host classes at the Under Armour Performance Center at 10 Light Street and build a new center in Montgomery County — said he recently attended a Special Olympics conference where parents from Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties packed a standing room-only hall.
“It’s a really big market,” said Ciner, who estimated that he received about 60 information cards from parents expressing interest in Spirit Club.
Ciner, who grew up in Denver before graduating from Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, said he first saw the value in fitness when he spent the summer after his junior year in Ethiopia, where he organized athletic programs for youth there.
Drawn by the plight of disabled adults, Ciner found a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that stated that obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 57 percent higher than rates for adults without disabilities.
“There are no fitness classes for them to participate in unless they’re extremely independent,” Ciner said. “A vast majority of people with disabilities take medication, and a lot of those medications cause weight gain as a side effect. Another reason is that the majority of people with disabilities are unemployed and therefore they’re even less active than the average person who is at least getting up and getting out of the house and going to work.”
Ciner’s first Spirit Club class drew six participants. Now, about 130 clients regularly attend exercise sessions.
“Once I was teaching it, I started to be less surprised [by the growth] because it was just clearly a valuable opportunity for people,” said Ciner, who has teamed with Sam Smith, a marathon runner with autism, and his roommate Justin Frevert to teach classes. “I could just tell that a majority of them had just been craving for an opportunity to exercise, but never had one.”
Ciner’s work caught the attention of Max Levitt, founder of Leveling the Playing Field, a multisport equipment donation business. Levitt recommended Spirit Club to The Good People Fund, and after speaking to Ciner and visiting Spirit Club in October, executive director and co-founder Naomi Eisenberger agreed to award Ciner a $5,000 grant.
“He really hit the bull’s-eye with us because he took his passion for exercise and paired that with what he was doing and working with that population,” Eisenberger said. “From what I saw when I was there, it was a very popular program. The session that I saw was filled with many people with different disabilities, and they all seemed to be having a wonderful time.”
Ciner, who credits his wife, Gabriele, and mother, Anne, for helping him, said he finds daily inspiration from Smith, his co-founder who is a certified personal trainer and a marathon runner despite being autistic. Ciner said he also feels fortunate to work in a job he loves.
“I’ve found a good balance between working hard and making a living and making sure not to lose sight of the mission,” he said. “I find that if I let the mission drive my energy, that leads to positive things and success. It’s a great job and I couldn’t imagine doing anything that would be more fulfilling.”