Community Partner - Spotlight with Daryl Kuchera from MSForward

When it comes to preparing well qualified, compassionate health care providers, the time Clarkson College students spend out in the community is just an important as the time they spend studying. Through community partnerships, the College provides students with opportunities to interact with individuals of all backgrounds, situations and abilities. One relationship that reflects the invaluable experiences students gain is between Clarkson College and MSForward, a non-profit organization founded by Daryl Kuchera and based in Omaha, Neb.

MSForward began as a gym where Kuchera provided high school athletes a space to train for their upcoming sports seasons. Only one month after opening in 2001, however, he began experiencing concerning symptoms and shortly after, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). In spite of his diagnosis and changing health, he kept the gym open to athletes. Eventually, his physical therapist suggested he explore the possibility of modifying the space for individuals who shared his diagnosis, many of whom had nowhere to continue their therapy after leaving the therapist’s office. 

“So that’s what we did,” said Kuchera. “We met with the MS Society and neurologists around Omaha, and we revamped our programs to work with individuals with MS, and then eventually we added Parkinson’s disease, dementia and sight impairment accommodations to our services.”

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In 2003, the gym became MSForward, which now offers individuals faced with medical conditions a place to build a community while improving their physical health. Through in-person and online sessions, clients can practice yoga, strength training and cognitive therapy, all within a safe environment that can accommodate their physical needs. Each course is based on the idea that movement is medicine and has the power to improve mood, focus, energy, strength and coordination in individuals with neurological conditions or injuries.

This philosophy is based on research Kuchera completed with other medical experts over the years. The studies determined that “exercise has the same impacts on multiple sclerosis patients as it does on healthy individuals. It effectively treats depression and, perhaps due to the increased brain plasticity associated with exercise, can stave off the progression of symptoms in multiple sclerosis” (Augustine A.A., Larson R.J. and Kuchera D., 2008). 

Kuchera points out, however, that it’s not just the physical aspect of MSForward classes that help individuals—it is also the social and mental components. “In each workout, we try to combine the emotional, mental and physical aspects in everything that we do,” he said. “Instead of just ‘go, stop, go’ it’s all about thinking about what you’re doing to engage your mind.”

It’s the physical, mental and social aspects that Clarkson College Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) students can provide to MSForward clients. The two organizations began working together in 2009 when they established an opportunity for students to complete service requirements at the MSForward gym. Over the years, the relationship has only grown stronger.

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While at the facility, students work with individuals with MS as well as other conditions such as cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease and neurological injury as they work through suggested exercises and stretches recommended by medical professionals. Students help record client statistics to measure progress and learn methods to help individuals modify exercises to meet their needs.

Following completion of their service learning projects, students submit essay assignments where they reflect on their experiences at MSForward. Over the years, students have commented on both the personal and professional insights they gained at the gym.

“Being at MSForward, I was able to learn a lot more about multiple sclerosis and how that affects a person and their daily life,” wrote one student. “It also gave me a look at how to work with a patient with multiple sclerosis as a future PTA. I was able to learn about what their body can handle and the types of pain and limitations they are dealing with.”

According to Daryl, the relationships built between clients and Clarkson College students are like none he has ever seen. “It’s amazing what is happening here,” said Kuchera. “It is like a family—when the semester is done and the students are done, they all get hugs from the patients.”

Students in turn, recognize the two-way relationships that they are establishing at MSForward. “Upon finishing my service-learning project through Clarkson College, I felt that I touched the lives of the individuals I worked with and made a difference in their day,” one student wrote. “With that being said, they also left a mark on me, and I am grateful I had the chance to build on new relationships within the community.”  

It is for this reason that Clarkson College incorporates service learning into every program curriculum. Through these opportunities, students learn to live out the Value of Caring and form relationships with community partners that change their lives and last long past graduation.

Testimonials from Students 

“MSForward was a huge eye-opening experience for me. Once the clients started showing up, I realized how upbeat and positive everyone was. I had a lot of fun participating in the workouts. I’ve never seen a group of people who are physically being challenged in every aspect of their lives work so hard. The mental toughness was incredible and a true learning experience.” 

“I have gained more respect toward myself and other people as I have become more appreciative of how healthy I am… I have also created a great relationship with Daryl through this program and have talked to him about coming back to help volunteer more due to the great time I had there.”

“One major benefit of having physical therapist assistant students interacting with the community is being able to give more information about the profession of physical therapy. A few common questions I received from some of Daryl’s clients were ‘what is physical therapy exactly?’ ‘What do physical therapists do?’, and ‘how is physical therapy different from just going to a gym?’ I feel that I was able to advocate for the profession in the community while providing members of the community with pertinent information.”

“I think that all students should do some type of service-learning activity. It helps students get familiar with the types of things they will be seeing in their careers. For PTA students in particular, it helps you get some confidence in instructing someone to do exercises and encouraging them through their exercises, all because you want to see them feel better.”

Learn more about MSForward at www.msforward.org.