BRIDGING THE GAP: COACH CHRIS KELLY
Wellness and inclusivity: these are the two themes in Chris Kelly’s life, and in his work.
Kelly’s main job is at Causeway Work Centre, which helps young people and others with mental and physical challenges find jobs. Ten years ago, when executive director Don Palmer realized there was a gap in services at Causeway, he used his triathlon knowledge and experience to establish a gym for the centre’s clients, then hired a personal trainer, Kelly, to run this gym, the first of its kind in Ottawa.
“Because of my involvement in triathlon and mental health, I knew the value of exercise in mitigating depression and other mental health challenges. You cannot have a healthy mind without a healthy body,” Palmer says. “Most of the folks we work with live below the poverty line and many are likely to find jobs in physically demanding occupations, but when they came to us they couldn’t stay on their feet for more than half an hour without having to sit down.”
Kelly adds that people who have significant mental health or addiction issues or other forms of disability, whether mental or physical, aren’t usually comfortable going to a regular gym, but unless they’re hospitalized, they have no obvious access to a recreation program.
In Causeway’s state-of-the-art gym, goals are broken down into small steps, there are no fees, no penalties for missed appointments, no judgments. “Just coming through the door is a victory,” says Kelly. “I treat these clients just like I would anybody else because there’s a stigma attached to mental illness and my objective is to be inclusive. But someone who is manic depressive or bipolar has bad days when it’s impossible to get to the gym. Then, I need a lot of patience. No matter how long they disappear for, I keep their workouts in a file folder ready for them when they come back.”
Kelly trains a team of Causeway clients called the wellness warriors to do a local 5 km run/walk each year. Their families come out to cheer. “For them, it’s like doing an Ironman,” he says. “Finishing is a huge confidence booster.”
His supervisor at Causeway, Sharon Lewis, says client retention and success have improved significantly because of Kelly.
Kelly also coaches a Peak Centre earlymorning triathlon swim program in Ottawa’s west end. Alex Stewart, manager of the centre, has noticed higher retention rates in this program since Kelly became the coach last year. “We’ve always known triathletes like a program with a social side,” Alex says, “but Chris has gone much further and created an incredible club atmosphere.” Stewart, who trains with the group, says Kelly achieves this while emphasizing the needs and goals of each individual. “At his first 6 a.m. practice, he told everyone to jump in the water and swim for an hour. No workout – he just watched us, got to know each of us and our strengths and weaknesses, then next practice assigned us to lanes. Chris takes an innovative approach to coaching.”
Kelly teaches spinning at the Ottawa Athletic Club, and if you want to be in one of his popular weekend classes there, you have to sign up early. He has provided personal training to a visually impaired triathlete and many others with special needs, and he makes house calls. Because he works so closely with such different groups of people and individuals all over Ottawa, he sees first-hand the great divide between those who are untouched by or able to cope with mental and physical challenges and those who are marginalized by them.
“Even though Clara Hughes and others are doing a great job speaking out, many of us still don’t have a clue what difficulties ordinary people with mental illnesses or other serious mental or physical problems face every day,” says Kelly. “I know this personally because often when I say I have attention deficit disorder and suffer from a form of depression called dysthymia, people don’t believe me, or they have a hard time understanding.”
Fifty-year-old Chris Kelly grew up in North York, Ont. When he was young, his mother died of complications related to multiple sclerosis. He dropped out of high school. A decade ago he moved to Ottawa, where he completed his education and became a certified triathlon coach and personal trainer.
“Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning is hard when I’m working through a rough patch, but swimming, biking and running really help. Exercise is my Ritalin, and it’s how I fight my depression.”
Theresa Wallace is an Ottawa freelance writer.
Chris Kelly (right) at the Ottawa Race Weekend 5K