The focus of an east-side nonprofit organization can be summed up in this statement by its program director:

"All of the things that you and I do easily are a big problem for people with cerebral palsy, and they have to learn how to do all the movements that it takes to complete a task."

The nonprofit is called GaitWay and its program director is Mary Hare, a registered nurse who focuses on helping people with motor disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida and multiple sclerosis.

On a recent Friday morning, six adults sat at tables lifting weights with their arms extended straight out in front of their chests.

The exercise is not about just trying to build strength, but about helping GaitWay clients develop more control of their bodies.

GaitWay uses a method called conductive education, which originated in Hungary, to help develop motor skills.

"It's about teaching people how to educate their minds to use their bodies in more effective ways so that they can be more independent in their daily lives," Hare said.

Some of the things clients work on are sitting with correct posture, walking, feeding themselves and using the bathroom.

Exercises include using their hands to roll a stick along a table, extending the stick over their heads, moving their heads to follow a ball, and stretching their legs and feet.

No one is turned away

Hare, whose 19-year-old granddaughter Shelby Gibson has cerebral palsy, started the organization in 1998 after seeing an episode of "60 Minutes" about conductive education.

A few years later the family went to a conductive education summer camp in New York. Then they decided to gather other families of children with motor disabilities and start their own program.

GaitWay has been in its first permanent location, 7447 E. 22nd St., since February 2009. It previously shared space with the Arizona Department of Economic Security's Division for Developmental Disabilities facility at East 29th Street and South Swan Road.

The organization was formerly known as Individual Achievements Association. But in October 2008, the directors decided GaitWay was more representative of the organization's mission.

"It can mean two things: It can mean a gateway like an opening into something new, or it can mean GaitWay, learning how to be mobile," Hare said.

Most clients' services are paid for by the state. Others pay between $30 and $40 per hour depending on the service. No one is turned away because they can't pay.

In January, GaitWay hired its first teacher - or conductor - who lives in Tucson. Before that, conductors would come from Hungary using work visas to teach here. Besides the conductor, Gabriella Szabo of Hungary, GaitWay has about 10 people on staff who work as classroom aides.

Szabo began considering a career in conductive education after her cousin was born with spina bifida.

"For me, to work with the special needs, I really want to set up higher expectations," she said.

Szabo's attitude when working with clients is, "I know it's hard, and I know it's going to take some time, but you can do that."

When clients work on an exercise, Szabo counts for or with them.

"If they say the task loud, the brain is going to send a message and it's going to work better," she said.

Szabo also uses songs to accompany certain activities.

"It's good for the soul, good for the whole body and it's" motivating, she said.

activities are a help

GaitWay offers programs for children and adults and even respite care. Two dozen children participated in summer camp this year.

It isn't all work, either. The clients participate in activities such as plays and movie time.

Cora Tucker's 9-year-old son Aaron has been going to GaitWay since June. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 3.

Tucker said conductive education has helped Aaron's sitting, standing and balance skills.

"He's still making his milestones - just slowly," she said.

Tucker said the activities at GaitWay help balance Aaron's overactive and underactive muscles.

"His gross- and fine-motor skills were already coming in anyway, but it has accelerated that," she said.

Hare hopes to expand GaitWay's programs and start a stroke-recovery program.

She acknowledged that each student is at a different level, and not everyone will learn to walk or feed themselves.

"It's not a miracle cure," she said. "But everybody learns something."

Marissa Freireich is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com or 807-7776.

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