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Good Works: Staying fit with Tim Kowalski

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps client Carol Elderkin of Florence to remove her coat before a work out at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps client Carol Elderkin of Florence to remove her coat before a work out at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps to strap client Carol Elderkin's foot into a bike machine at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps to strap client Carol Elderkin's foot into a bike machine at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski instructs client Carol Elderkin of Florence on how long she needs to bike at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski instructs client Carol Elderkin of Florence on how long she needs to bike at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski hands client Carol Elderkin of Florence a weight during her workout at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski hands client Carol Elderkin of Florence a weight during her workout at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski instructs client Carol Elderkin of Florence on how to properly lift weights at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski instructs client Carol Elderkin of Florence on how to properly lift weights at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski of Fit Together in Florence poses for a portrait on January 25, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski of Fit Together in Florence poses for a portrait on January 25, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps client Carol Elderkin of Florence to put on her hat after a work out at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps client Carol Elderkin of Florence to put on her hat after a work out at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps client Carol Elderkin of Florence to remove her coat before a work out at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps to strap client Carol Elderkin's foot into a bike machine at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski instructs client Carol Elderkin of Florence on how long she needs to bike at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski hands client Carol Elderkin of Florence a weight during her workout at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski instructs client Carol Elderkin of Florence on how to properly lift weights at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski of Fit Together in Florence poses for a portrait on January 25, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Volunteer Tim Kowalski helps client Carol Elderkin of Florence to put on her hat after a work out at Fit Together on January 25, 2013. Fit Together is a gym operated by ServiceNet and founded to meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical disabilities. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Tim Kowalski glances at the clock, then answers Carol Elderkins’s question. “You have three minutes to go,” he says.

Elderkin is pedaling on the stationary bike. Watching TV helps pass the time — “I Love Lucy” is one of her favorites, she says — but on some days 10 minutes feels longer.

“Sometimes I’ve had enough of the bike,” she says.

Elderkin was doing her weekly workout at Fit Together, a wellness center in Florence that offers exercise opportunities for people with disabilities.

Minutes later, Tim Kowalski, a volunteer at the gym, loosens the straps around Elderkin’s feet, helps her into the wheelchair that’s next to the bike, and places a 3-pound weight in her right hand. Kowalski knows that Elderkin’s left arm and leg were paralyzed in an accident years ago.

With a weight in each of his hands, Kowalski leads her through eight upper body and arm exercises that includes bicep curls, lateral raises and shoulder presses.

“And last but not least,” he says with a flourish, “the side bend.”

When they’re done, Kowalski wheels Elderkin over to the area of the gym they call “the chat room,” where members can socialize. Asked when their weekly sessions began, Elderkin and Kowalski settle on October. “I remember that we wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas,” she says.

He describes her as a woman whose motivation rarely lags. She describes him as “a great one-on-one trainer for me. He’s always encouraging.”

Kowalski, of Florence, is one of 12 volunteers in Fit Together’s PALS program — Partners Achieving Lives of Strength. The program matches volunteers with gym members like Elderkin who want a little extra help during their workouts.

Fit Together opened in 2007 as a program of ServiceNet, a regional human-services agency. It was founded to address a growing recognition that people with disabilities have high rates of preventable health conditions, such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes. The gym, which is also open to the general public, is funded with a mix of state government and private funds, plus donations and membership fees.

Housed in a renovated mill building, it offers its 125 members a circuit of weight machines, treadmills and elliptical trainers, plus classes including yoga, Reiki and tai chi.

People find camaraderie at Fit Together, but there’s no whining and no victimhood, says David Banas of Florence, a social worker and gym member. “When you’re there,” he said, “you sort of forget about your own problems.”

Outfitted in his Fit Together hoodie and his workout shorts or jeans, Kowalski, 37, is a familiar presence at the gym. He started working with weights back in high school, he says, but adds quickly that his role at Fit Together isn’t about how much he bench-pressed years ago. It’s about knowing what it’s like to fall off the fitness wagon — he’s been there — and about knowing what it’s like to struggle. He’s been there, too. He has severe learning disabilities, and a form of autism, he said, that has sometimes made it tough to develop friendships.

He knows it’s hard for people to go to a gym, especially if they’re feeling self-conscious or worried about being mocked. “Life isn’t easy,” he says. “Sometimes the hardest thing is getting out of the house.”

Kowalski joined Fit Together a year or so ago. “I needed a fitness program, something I could keep up with consistently.” he said. He wanted to lose weight, he said, and has made progress. “I’m never going to be a small man,” he says, “but I managed to tighten up a notch or two — and I’m using the original holes in my belt.”

When Rebecca Goldfinger-Fein, the gym’s program coordinator, asked if he’d like to become a volunteer, Kowalski said yes and went through an orientation program.

In addition to his one-on-one sessions with Elderkin, he helps other members as needed.

“I float all over the place,” he says of his role. “I really have to be awake and pay attention.”

He’ll show a member how to use a weight machine he or she hasn’t tried before, for example, or offer tips about using proper form to avoid injury. He’ll keep an eye out to make sure a newcomer isn’t using too heavy a weight, or racing through too many reps too quickly. And, he says, he always adds a compliment.

“Tim keys in on what a person needs,” says staff member Ryan Kincade.

For his workouts, Kowalski does 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer and 30 minutes on the treadmill. His preferred TV diversion when he’s working out is sports talk shows, he said. Anything about the hometown teams — especially the Boston Bruins — will fill the bill. Kowalski jokes that he’s a model New England fan: “I’m a sore loser and an arrogant winner.”

At night, he works part-time cleaning office buildings. The job brings in a little money, he said, but doesn’t offer the satisfaction of Fit Together. It’s nice to walk out of the gym, he said, “knowing that I assisted others.”

On a recent morning after Kowalski and Carol Elderkin finished her workout, they chatted about how she’d actually done 12 minutes on the stationary bike — a personal best. “I always look forward to Fridays,” she said.

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