Monday, November 11, 2011, could have been any other Monday, but for McKinney native Daniel Stein, it was the day one of his spiritual advisors called him out of the blue to share with him a dream he’d had. After describing the dream in detail, his advisor said to him, “‘Daniel, God gave me this vision, and you were working with people with special needs.’”
At the time, Daniel was a recently certified personal trainer, a vocation he felt naturally drawn to. He had been diagnosed with ADHD at the age of four and “just had a lot of trouble with school.” What helped him in the early years was recess and physical activities he could channel his excess energy into—namely, sports. In high school, he played football for McKinney High School and lifted weights in the off-season. With graduation right around the corner, he decided to become a personal trainer, to share his passion for health and fitness with others. “It just made sense,” he says.
The day after his advisor called, Daniel came across a magazine article which highlighted the need for adaptive recreation and fitness programs designed for clients of all abilities. He began to wonder if maybe there was something to his advisor’s dream. Because he was already a certified trainer, he began looking for opportunities to work with clients who might otherwise be shut out of traditional fitness programs. “And I fell in love,” he says. “With my clients, with the work — I was called to this, without a question.”
Almost five years later, with an “incredible” team of mentors and a very-detailed roadmap for how to proceed, Daniel and his wife, Trinity, officially launched Special Strong in October of 2016. It is a faith-based business, governed by Christian values of serving others. However, they are by no means exclusive, and strive to include all people of all faiths and backgrounds.
To be sure, clients are the very heart of Special Strong. They are a very diverse group of people, of all ages and abilities. But just as diverse as their backgrounds are their dreams and personal goals—that might be weight loss or adapted fitness activities, or that goal might simply be to try something new. In fact, one client, who had been excluded from premier volleyball because of her disability, came to Special Strong looking for a competitive edge.
The team at Special Strong takes a whole-health approach to helping their clients achieve their best results. Their training model makes use of stretching and repetitive movements to improve balance and coordination, using some of the basic techniques of applied behavioral analysis (namely, breaking down complex tasks into a smaller progression of tasks, positive reinforcement, de-escalation strategies). A board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) regularly consults with the staff to help them devise the best fitness strategies for their clients, and the staff works with each new client to develop a fitness strategy that is right for them. “It’s easy to create a template for an exercise program, but with individuals with special needs, it does not work that way,” says Daniel. “So none of my clients have the exact same routine.”
Special Strong offers clients a wide array of services, including personal training and bootcamps. The bootcamps have become very popular because of the peer-to-peer mentorship they offer: clients encourage one another to make that extra push and celebrate each other’s personal milestones. One client in particular, John, was doing so well that he expressed an interest in helping out as an assistant during one of the bootcamp sessions. John had never had a job, but the team decided to give him the opportunity to lead a class. Working alongside the Special Strong trainers gave him a sense of purpose. According to John’s mother, he was “really maturing” and she could see the difference at home.
Another Special Strong client, Jared, went to school for the legally blind, graduated, “and came back and said, ‘I want to be a trainer’.” The team took him on as an intern. From there, it seemed only natural to consider developing an internship program which gives higher-functioning clients the chance to become trainers and co-trainers. “I would love to see these individuals get into mainstream gyms,” says Daniel. “So it’s something we’re working on, for sure. It’s in the very early stages right now. We have a couple of clients who are capable of leading these groups on their own, but right now we’re trying to figure out how make it work logistically.”
In the time since it began as a phone call and a dream, Special Strong has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of people in North Texas and beyond. Through trainers who are passionate about sharing their love for physical fitness, Special Strong is not only making a difference in the lives of their clients, but in the lives of their clients’ families and communities as well.
Daniel smiles when he talks about one of his first clients, Josh, a young man with Down Syndrome who was struggling with depression. As Josh’s mother described it to Daniel, “he was just not himself at all.” They had to do something different.
And so the team at Special Strong took Josh on as a client and worked with him for two years. In that time, Josh became very active and engaged in the program. He relished the personal challenges his trainers presented him with and began to develop a new confidence in himself. He lost a healthy amount of weight and some of his medications were scaled back. He even got a job.
Although his family later moved to east Texas, Josh continued making his health and fitness a priority. He tried horseback riding for the first time. He even began leading family hikes—”leading, family hikes,” says Daniel, “not just following, leading.” Josh was encouraging his family members to take their own health seriously, and they were following his lead. They too were exercising and changing how they ate. And that they were now doing it together, as a family—Daniel Stein calls that “the ultimate win.”
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