An interview with Wendy Wilkerson from The Empowerment Neurofitness and Wellness Center on September 9, 2023 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.
Wendy Wilkerson is an Exercise Specialist that holds a Medical Fitness Practitioner certification. She earned both of her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.
Wendy started her career in the cardiac rehabilitation field in San Diego, CA while her husband was stationed there. A move back to the east coast and a job in outpatient therapy is where her journey started working with the Parkinson’s population.
She earned her PWR! Instructor Certification and her RSB certification while working in outpatient physical therapy, she was able to start community classes. After a few years, she knew she had a bigger calling since and knowing that she couldn’t move up in the company, she saw a bigger need that wasn’t being met and decided to open her own facility, Empowerment! Wellness, specifically for Parkinson’s disease. She wanted to create a space where they can come and exercise safely and not worry about who is watching them or judging them for their disease.
After three years and the effects of Covid, that is when she took the leap to start the nonprofit, The Empowerment Neurofitness and Wellness Center, providing a place for neurological disorders such as PD, MS and post stroke. She saw a bigger need in the neurological community as well as support for the caregivers.
Please tell me a little about your background and what got you involved with awareness.
My journey working with the Parkinson’s population started when I worked with outpatient physical therapy clinic. The Neuro physical therapist was in the MDS office at the time, and I would go and get her patients and bring them down to the ortho clinic to either finish up with exercises or put them on the NuStep machine to finish their session. After about a year working with the clinic, I was sent to get the PWR! Training so that we could start to offer exercise classes. This is where my journey started with Parkinson’s disease.
Can you tell me more about your organization?
Originally, I was an LLC offering exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s disease. After seeing a need in the neurological community for a place to exercise and not feel like they are defined by their disease, I decided to branch out to the MS community. Things were going well until Covid hit and there was a huge decline, not only physically and mentally, from lack of exercise and isolation. I also see how this decline affected caregivers as well as they had the challenges of caring for their loved ones and not having the time for themselves. I decided after 3 years, that becoming a nonprofit was the best thing for me to do to offer more support to the neurological community and to branch out to other disorders.
What is your passion and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure?
My career actually started in cardiac rehabilitation and I loved working with that population. After my husband retired from the Navy and we moved back to east coast, there were no jobs in cardiac rehabilitation and so I had to choose a different avenue. That is when I started working in outpatient physical therapy and the Parkinson’s population. At first, I wasn’t sure this is where I belonged, but as time went on, I knew this is where I was meant to be. It was so much more interesting to me than orthopedics physical therapy. Since one PD patient is different from another one, it was like putting a puzzle together to see what fit for each person, and that motivated me to learn more!
What type of goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when working with you?
The typical goals that most people want to improve are strength and balance. They want to be able to feel confident at home in the community to continue doing things with their family and not feel like a burden to them.
What type of training and how long are the programs?
We offer a variety of classes to include RSB, PWR!, circuit, strength, tai-chi, cardio and Urban poling. Each class is an hour long and the way our schedule works they are able to come to classes 5x/week on different days and times depending on what team they are on.
What effect can it have on an individual with Parkinson’s?
I think the more awareness someone has with Parkinson’s disease, the more inclined for them to be motivated to fight back against the disease. Understanding symptoms, medications, and what is offered in the community keeps them more engaged and potentially manages their disease better.
What would you like to see as a future goal for your programs?
My future goal is to grow the programs to include caregivers. We all know that people with PD need exercise to help delay the progression, but the caregivers need to take care of themselves as well in order to care for their loved one. Providing more education and resources for them to help them thrive at home and in the community. I would also like to offer more classes to other neurological conditions in the future to give them a place where they feel safe and comfortable coming out to exercise.
What events do you participate in?
Currently I participate in support group meeting and the annual APDA walk.
How does this also assist the caregivers?
Caregivers can have the spouse exercise in a safe environment and not have to worry about who they are working with. It is also a great social component when they can talk to other spouses, especially since they understand the challenges they have when having to care for them 24/7. I have them tell me too that if they do have a fall at home, that they remember how to get up from the floor from when they were in classes. That helps them out especially if the caregiver is unable to physically help them up.
How can someone get in touch? What is your website?
Email me at email@example.com
The website is https://enfwc.org
If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson community, what would it be?
“Your challenges don’t define you; your actions do!”