BY ABBEY DOYLE

Evansville Courier & Press

Boxing wasn’t a sport Don Kellams ever considered taking up, especially after receiving a Parkinson’s diagnosis. But the 68-year-old credits his three-times-a-week boxing workout with helping him control the effects of the neurodegenerative brain disorder.

The downtown YMCA has been offering the Rock Steady Boxing program since September, and Kellams has been a part since the very beginning.

“It helps me immensely,” he said of the class. “I never dreamed of boxing but it makes you feel good because you are doing the same things as other people.”

Since the class started, the only sessions he’s missed were when he was recovering from knee-replacement surgery.

Tracy Gander, health initiatives director of the YMCA of Southwest Indiana, said the Y was approached by someone in the community with Parkinson’s about bringing the Rock Steady program to the Y. The method was founded in Indianapolis in 2006 and began offering affiliate programs in 2012. It is a boxing training program with no contact for those living with Parkinson’s disease that helps improve balance, hand-eye coordination, speed of movement, agility, muscle power and mental focus. The local Y is the only YMCA in the country to offer the Rock Steady program.

“This is an amazing group of individuals who have made great progress,” Gander said. “The concept of boxing is not lost on them — they get to fight back at the disease and take back some control and power.”

Kellams’s wife, Chris Kellams, said she’s seen a big improvement in both his physical and emotional wellbeing since he’s been involved in the class.

“I think he’s proud,” she said. “The workout they do is pretty intense. It’s a lot for them.”

Rock Steady Coach John Richard said the workout they get is the same that he gives to his boxing for fitness class, but he adds more balance work.

“What really has surprised me is how the moving in boxing can be used to combat some of the things going wrong with people suffering from Parkinson’s from stiffness and rigidity,” he said. “Boxing has a lot of rotation and also deals with hand-eye coordination and coordinating hands and feet to work together.”

He said he’s joked with the Rock Steady class that he wishes his youth boxing classes worked half as hard as they do. The response from the Rock Steady participants: “We have more incentive.”

“They are the most courageous group of fighters,” Richards said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done since I’ve been involved in boxing. Seeing the heart and determination and watching these people get stronger and doing things they thought they’d never be able to do, breaking barriers, it has all been amazing.”

Kellams first started noticing signs of the disease before he retired from the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 136 in 2004 but ignored them. But in 2007, Chris Kellams was finally able to talk him into going to a doctor. The first neurologist they saw diagnosed him with a tremor disorder, but the symptoms continued to get worse, so they sought another opinion in 2009. The doctor immediately diagnosed him with Parkinson’s.

That’s when he knew he had to retire as Poseyville’s deputy marshal, a position he’d held for more than 20 years.

“You can imagine what kind of reaction I’d get if I’d pulled my gun and would be going like this,” Kellams said with a laugh, holding up his arms as they shook uncontrollably. “They’d think I was Barney Fife.”

Programs like Rock Steady and the Parkinson’s Awareness Support Association of the Tri-State have helped the Kellams manage both the physical and emotional elements of the disease, along with medical care.

“We’ve learned a lot about the disease, treatment and studies through the support group and Rock Steady,” Chris Kellams said. “They have been amazing supports.”

The Kellams continue to travel and enjoy their time together, happy that many of his symptoms are well under control. Don Kellams has even continued his art, something Chris Kellams also started doing to help keep his interest up in a lifelong passion.

“We have a very good outlook on it,” Chris Kellams said. “We are staying positive. We now know what it is we are fighting, and we are dealing with it. I’m proud of the way he’s dealt with it.”

Richards said the goal of the Rock Steady program is to help those suffering from Parkinson’s to have a little control of their life. Because there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, there isn’t a lot people can do, so any effort to slow down the physical degeneration is good.

“They are spending a lot of time in doctors’ offices and specialists,” he said. “This is a chance for them to get out of that and not be treated like a patient. They are a boxer, a fighter. And their support team, caregiver, they are their coach or corner man.”

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Source: Evansville Courier & Press, http://bit.ly/1acn8od