As DJ Preiner celebrated seven years at Eden Prairie’s CHOICE, Inc., this July, he reflected that his time working with adults with intellectual disabilities has felt like forever, and no time at all.
“I get both feelings,” Preiner said. “It’s been a great journey.”
This summer, unbeknownst to him, Preiner’s coworkers nominated him for the the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation’s Direct Service Professional award for his work developing the center’s fitness program, SHAPE. When he walked into a staff meeting and learned that he’d won an award he hadn’t even known about, it was hard to believe at first, Preiner said.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t take it in right away,” he said. “I know I won this award, but it’s a team effort.”
When Preiner arrived at CHOICE, 7654 Executive Drive, which helps adults with intellectual disabilities find work and foster independence and lifelong learning, the SHAPE fitness program was but a twinkle in his eye. Equipped with a degree in community health from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Preiner hadn’t worked with people with disabilities before, but he’d grown up with friends and classmates with disabilities.
“I really like health, and I really like helping people,” he said. “It just came full circle.”
Somebody had donated three exercise bikes that were kept in a storage closet, and participants occasionally used them between activities and visits to job sites. Compare that to today’s program: SHAPE boasts two dozen cardio and weight machines, a wall of recognition for SHAPE member of the month, and individually tailored exercise programs that Preiner and co-SHAPE instructor, Caitlyn Adkins, create for participants.
“It wasn’t anything like this,” Preiner recalled.
In many ways, adaptive fitness is the same as other fitness programs. Preiner and Adkins create programs for people based on their goals − a focus on weightlifting for one, a cardio emphasis for another − and switch up exercises with fun circuits, outdoor exercise at Staring Lake and Round Lake parks, and inviting volunteers from the Young Men’s Service League or participants from Eden Prairie High School’s Tassel program to join the workouts.
“Every individual that is here has different abilities,” Preiner said. “You’ve got to be enthusiastic, bringing energy.”
“Every day he’s super silly, he can always make the participants laugh,” Adkins said of her colleague. Alicia Teeter, another colleague and CHOICE employment instructor, noted Preiner’s ability to draw quiet people out of their shells.
“I feel like DJ has a good eye for those people,” Teeter said. “He has a heart for our people. When he’s in the zone of getting participants involved, he’s really good at it.”
Watching somebody achieve their goals is its own reward, Preiner said. A favorite moment from his time at CHOICE was helping a participant develop the skills they needed to have an independent job, he said.
“To see the excitement that surrounded that, and the work they put into it,” Preiner recalled. “That’s our big goal, to make everybody as independent as possible.”
Preiner also shares his passions from his personal life with participants. An avid outdoorsman, he procured a few fishing rods for CHOICE and took participants fishing on a nearby lake.
“We don’t settle. We’re always pushing for new ideas,” Preiner said, and when professionals are excited and enjoying their work, “your energy disperses to everybody.”