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BLOOMINGTON — An innovative McLean County private-public partnership to help people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to achieve their health and fitness goals has exceeded expectations, so the program will add 10 more scholarship participants with disabilities during the next two months.

The Partnership for Health Pilot Project will continue to support 26 people with disabilities and 15 of their support people from Marcfirst homes with a medically supervised exercise program at the Advocate BroMenn Health & Fitness Center in the Center for Integrated Wellness, Bloomington. Money comes from a McLean County tax levy designated for individuals with disabilities and from the Advocate Charitable Foundation.

But 10 more adults with disabilities who are not Marcfirst clients will be added, thanks to the program's success after one year and donations to the Advocate foundation.

"Everyone deserves an opportunity to be healthy and feel good about themselves," said Shelleigh Birlingmair, vice president of development for Advocate Charitable Foundation.

Meanwhile, in a poignant nod to the program's growth and impact, an award and scholarship were named Tuesday in memory of program participant Neysa Danilson, 47, who lived with cerebral palsy but died July 17 of cancer. The announcement was made at the health and fitness center in a room filled with Marcfirst residents who participate in the program, supporters and members of Danilson's family.

"This is amazing," said her mother, Kathy Danilson of LeRoy.

"We're so proud of her," said her father, John Danilson. "I think this (award and scholarship) will be an inspiration to others. It shows you don't have to be a great athlete to make a difference."

The pilot project began April 1, 2017, because people with developmental disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer than people without disabilities and die, on average, 25 years earlier.

Partners in the pilot project are the health and fitness center, the foundation, McLean County Health Department, Marcfirst (which provides programs for people with disabilities) and the McLean County Board for the Care and Treatment of Persons with a Developmental Disability, also known as the 377 Board. That board approved using money from the tax levy.

After one year of the program, according to Center for Integrated Wellness Executive Director Catherine Porter, all participants experienced increased stamina, strength, social connectedness and mental health; 50 percent improved their waist circumference and decreased blood pressure; 47 percent experienced improved BMI (body-mass index); resting heart rates were reduced by 44 percent; cholesterol levels were reduced by 36 percent; and emergency room visits and hospital length of stays declined.

Program participant Liz Yates, 50, who has an intellectual disability and lives in a Marcfirst apartment in Bloomington, said she is succeeding in her goals to improve her balance and lose weight.

"I like it," Yates said. "I meet new people."

Jason Gelsthorpe, 42, who also has an intellectual disability and lives in a Marcfirst apartment, said "The reason I like to do this is I like to lose weight and get stronger. Yeah, I got stronger."

Danilson, who also lived in an apartment with Marcfirst support, was in a wheelchair when she began in the program. Her goal was to walk without crutches.

After a year, she was able to walk on the track barely holding onto the rail and was able to walk from exercise machine to exercise machine with little support, said her Marcfirst support person and workout buddy Brenda Smith.

"She almost accomplished what she wanted to do," Smith said. "With her disability, she never would have been able to walk unassisted but she came close."

"She'd call me ecstatic about what she'd done that day," Kathy Danilson said.

But in May, Neysa Danilson was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to her liver and lungs and there was nothing for her parents to do but bring her home and make her comfortable, they said.

Vern McGinnis, president of the 377 Board, presented a certificate of recognition to Danilson's parents and announced the Neysa Award, which will be given to future program participants who achieve their goals. He also announced a $1,000 scholarship named in Danilson's honor for a McLean County adult with a disability and in need to cover their program costs for a year.

In addition, donations to the Advocate foundation make it possible to expand the program by 10 participants, McGinnis and Birlingmair said. Each applicant must be a McLean County adult with a disability.

"The Advocate BroMenn Health & Fitness Center has embraced this population and that is having an impact on the whole community," Birlingmair said.

Contact Paul Swiech at (309) 820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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