MOUNT VERNON — The Department of Adult Probation has developed a physical fitness and general wellness program for Mandated Educational and Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) drug court program participants about two years ago, and has been growing the program ever since.
The program is called Chris-Fit, a play on Crossfit, and it encourages MERIT participants to improve their physical health while working towards sobriety.
The program got its name from Chris O’Hara, an active physical fitness enthusiast and someone who empowered many in the community. He was open about his addiction and it was a single relapse, after several years of being clean, that caused him to overdose.
When Chief Probation Officer Dave Priest came up with the plan of Chris-Fit, he gave credit where it was due by naming the fitness program after Chris.
The idea for a fitness program came to Priest as he was online one night and saw a program where a police officer took an individual with addiction problems under his wing and started doing work-outs.
“I kind of put two and two together and then I remembered all the things Chris always talked about,” he said. “So that’s kind of how the concept (of Chris-Fit) was born.”
“We do a lot of cognitive work and a lot of behavioral change programming. Everything is in the mind.” Priest said about the counseling they do with probationers. “Why can’t we incorporate physical fitness into the recovery plan?”
Priest knew he had to get the program off the ground and he also knew that just handing out a membership to a gym wouldn’t work. Someone who’s going through recovery, he said, is impulsive and they are living in the now. He had to think of a way to make this program stick with them.
The three main goals Priest had for the program was reducing recidivism, to rehabilitate the probationers and make the overall community safer.
“The program is for someone who wants to be invested in their recovery,” he said. The program gives the probationers the tools to stay out of jail but it is up to them to be accountable for what they do.
Priest reached out to the rehabilitation center at Knox Community Hospital and pitched them the idea of Chris-Fit. Instead of just offering finical help to the program, they offered the use of the wellness center and offered to meet with the probationers to come up with personal fitness plans.
The probationers meet with personal fitness instructors through the wellness center for eight weeks and can track their overall progress. During that time, they can work out as much as they want and see a doctor for guidance if needed. After those eight weeks are up, they get a membership pass to the center.
Funding this project was the next step after the plan was in place. Priest reached out to Women United and applied for a grant through them. He also applied for a grant through Elk’s Lodge 140. The grant money allowed the probation department to pay for the memberships to the wellness center.
“I don’t know what I would do without those ladies (at United Way),” Priest said “They continue to fund our program and they are a great resource.”
Along with the fitness plans, participants also engage in a variety of other classes through the MERIT court program. These include classes on nutrition and mental health. The classes are led by various local companies and services and all the classes are held in-house at the probation office.
In the past year, they added an integrated community recovery model to the program. This added classes such as “Eating for the Health of it,” which is run by the Ohio State Extension office Snap-Ed program. This classes teaches participants how to eat healthy while on a budget.
Two classes are opened to the public so those in the community can learn about those in recovery and those in recovery can share their stories to help others. The classes that are open to the public are Restorative Yoga, every Tuesday at noon ran by Hot Yoga Escape, and the Mind, Body, Spirit Fitness class Thursday at noon ran by Probation Officer Julie Fisher.
Priest said he wants it to become a mentoring opportunity and a place where the community can learn about the probation court and all that it entails.
This year they have added two new things to the program. The first is a class series on mindfulness where self awareness techniques are taught to regulate emotions. The second is a bike lease program. The probation department has secured bikes through a local bike shop in Mount Vernon.
The bikes are registered through the office, equipped with lights, and the riders are given helmets. The purpose of this, Priest said, is to help participants get to the wellness center and to jobs. And after they find a job, or get a car, they are able to pay it forward and donate the bike back to the program for someone else to use.
Because of this new extension to the Chris-Fit program, Priest said that KCH is putting in bike rack so participants in the program can ride their bikes out to the gym.
Overall, the response to the program has been well received by all who are involved.
“You want to almost trade an addiction with a good addiction,” Fisher said about the fitness program. “It shows them that there are healthy ways to go about life.”
The classes, Fisher said, can count towards their community service hours or instead of jail time if a drug screening comes back dirty. More often than not, Fisher said, they will choose the fitness class if given the option of the class or jail time.
Kara Holdeman participates in the Chris-Fit program and said one of the main reasons she joined was because of the weight she gained during recovery.
“That was a big factor for me. The second biggest factor is that I feel like the routine of working out can help you in your recovery,” Holdeman said.
She talked about how the serotonin is overproduced when someone uses and during recovery there’s a lack of that. Working out can replace those levels of serotonin and helps get the brain back into a good routine of producing that chemical.
“Victor (her personal trainer) worked with my schedule and the assessment was really neat,” she said. “I loved all the information I got. They never pushed me to do more than I could take.”
Demetrius Caldwell joined to keep up his endurance after all that he put his body through. He said that his body maxes out quicker than the guys he plays basketball with. The program allows him to get back into better shape, both mentally and physically.
Meghan Meadows didn’t have a bad thing to say about the program or the instructors and trainers who helped her along her journey.
“When I started going to my job I couldn’t go to the classes, her (her trainer) sent me a card saying congratulations on a new job,” Meadows said.
Meadows said her trainer showed her around to all of the equipment and took the time to help her with her goals. Meadows and Holdeman both agreed that the location of the gym, being mainly a place for physical therapy, made it more comfortable, and less intimidating, for them to work out.
“I recommend (Chris-Fit) to anyone in the MERIT court,” Meadows said.
“I don’t think they (the probation office) is recognized for what they do for our probationers,” Haldeman said about how the probation office really tries to help them with programs like MERIT and Chris-Fit.
“I appreciate these guys walking through recovery,” Priest said about those who actively participate in the program. “We hope this becomes a model for recovery programs because the idea is to enhance the recovery process.”
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