WALKER -- At the end of every workout, clients of the Livingston Activity Center are given a choice.
Do y’all want to run, or do y’all want to dance?
Tiffany Wheat, office manager of the Activity Center, says the answer is always the same.
“If they could come here and dance the whole time, they would,” she said with a laugh.
Rest assured — they do plenty of that during their regular visits to Slingin’ Iron CrossFit in Walker, which opened its doors earlier this summer to special needs adults from the Livingston Activity Center (LAC) for free workouts.
Every other Thursday, LAC clients put on their “I Am Strong” baby-blue T-shirts, pile into a couple of vans and head less than a mile down Hwy. 190 to the 7,500-square-foot facility, where they engage in a variety of workouts and games.
Oh yeah, and lots of dancing, Slingin’ Iron owner Justin King said.
King recalled a recent workout in which LAC clients were split into two sides for an impromptu dance-off, men on one side and women on the other. The sides took turns dancing in front of each other, and “of course, the guys didn’t get it as good as the girls,” King joked.
Jim Forbes, a former Livingston Parish principal who regularly takes part in the special needs workouts, said the dance sessions can get pretty wild at times — especially when the song “Bring Sally Up, Bring Sally Down” comes on.
“It gets like ‘Soul Train’ in here,” Forbes said.
King, a Walker High graduate who opened the fitness center in early 2018, said he was inspired to reach out to the Activity Center in memory of his “Uncle Gayden,” who worked at the vocational facility for special needs adults for more than 30 years.
The oldest of seven children who had Down syndrome, King remembers Gayden as “the life of the family,” always smiling and hoping to make others as happy as he was.
King said his uncle taught him much before his passing at the age of 68. One lesson that has stuck, and one that King tries to get across to others: “Special needs people are just like us.”
“Uncle Gayden taught me that we treat [special needs people] like they’re delicate flowers,” King said. “And it’s tough, because most people don’t know what to do. The great thing about [these workout sessions] is it gives other people a chance to interact and see that they’re the same as us.
“At the end of the day, they want the same thing we want: To love and be loved.”
Shortly after King made this comment, the doors to his office were thrown open, and in walked a line of eager LAC clients, ready for another workout.
Wheat, who’s been in her position at LAC for a little more than a year, said the clients regularly walk into her office to ask when the next workout is. Many of them are even wearing T-shirts that King had made for them bearing his fitness center’s slogan of “I Am Strong.”
“When we leave today, they’ll be talking about this for two weeks,” Wheat said. “It’s made a huge impact on them. They look forward to it. Their morale is better at work because they’re looking forward to this. They’re just happier and look forward to coming here with the community. They look forward to everyone cheering them on.
“For them, this is a social thing. They get to come here and relax and have fun. They love coming here and being around people and not worrying about getting back to work. It’s been great for them.”
King and several of his gym members passed out high-fives and hugs when the clients entered the building. One man, Raymond Hanner, gave his customary Stone Cold Steve Austin impression while King busted out a Ric Flair move.
The mingling continued until everyone gathered in a circle, and in the middle stood King’s wife Hope, who led the group of 30 or so through a series of stretches.
“Rotate your arms… now reach for your toes... and spread your legs wide,” Hope instructed.
After that, it was time to work out.
King said the LAC workout sessions are “more functional” and are meant to give clients a chance to “shake loose” from the day’s work, mostly spent indoors. Since the age of the group ranges from early 20s to as old as 50, workouts must be suitable for everyone, King said.
“We know that every other week is not a fitness routine,” he said. “What we try to do here is have a good time and give them a chance to come in and get after it. We don’t want them just sitting around. We want them to be moving. We’re all having fun, and if we can do some functional stuff, then that’s great.”
During a workout on Aug. 22, LAC clients and Slingin’ Iron members were divided into three teams that competed in a relay. Starting on one end, each team had to pass 4-pound and 6-pound medicine balls down the line as fast as they could before throwing them into a makeshift basket.
“Now we’re talking,” King hollered during the relay, which drew plenty of cheers from everyone present.
After the relay came everyone’s favorite part — the dance session.
LAC clients and their Slingin’ Iron buddies gathered in a big circle while “Single Ladies” blared through the gym’s speakers. Latesha Holiday, who’s earned the nickname “Beyoncé,” was the star of the dance-off, busting out several moves while others tried to emulate. At one point, Wheat locked hands with Trey Maggio, and the two spun in circles while others partnered up around them.
Though the LAC clients appear to be the ones benefiting most from the visits, King said that’s far from the case. And he has no plans of shutting them down at all.
“For us, as long as our doors are open, they can always come here,” he said. “They get a chance to benefit from us, and we benefit from them even more. Yes, we’re a fitness facility. We’re here to change lives from a fitness standpoint, but we want to change lives all the way around. And they’re changing our lives.”