While most people are focusing on the upcoming year, Laura Schepps is busy celebrating 2015. This January marks one year since the official start of the Fit Friends program. The program, run by The Friendship Initiative in collaboration with All 4 One Fitness in Coral Springs, focuses on helping children and young adults with special needs who want to increase body stamina and muscle tone. 

Schepps is a trainer at All 4 One Fitness and helps to oversee Fit Friends. In just one year in the program, her 19-year-old son Jason has shown tremendous development.

“Jason likes the socialization and the gym atmosphere. I think he likes getting stronger and feeling stronger and being part of a group,” Schepps says. “He’s definitely gained some strength from the program.”

Fit Friends focuses on strength training, cardio, flexibility and coordination skills via circuit stations and obstacle courses. Each class meets on Saturdays and operates in eight-week sessions. They start with an outdoor warmup followed by cardio and weights. 

“This is my livelihood,” Schepps explains. “I’ve been a trainer for 11 years. I help everyone else, so why not help my own son in this wonderful program?”

The group is made up of 11 “Athletes” and 14 volunteer “Student Trainers.” Although the volunteers receive service hours to meet their graduation requirements, Schepps says it’s the relationships they build that is the true reward. 

“Jason has a hockey player that’s his buddy, and since he loves sports, he gets to talk back and forth,” says Schepps who believes her son has made an impact on Fit Friends in return. “He’s a great kid, so socially, he’s done a lot for the program.”

Schepps initially became involved with Fit Friends after Jeb Niewood, founder of The Friendship Initiative, approached her. Niewood has been providing programs to families with special needs children for the past 13 years (he and his son also founded Parkland Buddy Sports in 2002).

“I wanted to branch out to areas other than sports programming. One of the areas I wanted to touch on was general health and fitness and positive body image,” says Niewood, who left Parkland Buddy Sports in 2014 to focus on The Friendship Initiative. “I wanted to broaden the ability of giving programming to the special needs population and at the same time still use student volunteers on a daily basis.”

This year, Niewood hopes to add a second hour to the growing Fit Friends program on Saturdays in an effort to double the amount of individuals able to participate. But quite possibly the most exciting news is the preliminary stages of “Friendship Park.” 

In 2015, the city of Parkland approved an entire redesign of Terramar Park. “The park will be completely accessible in all elements to the special needs and the typical population,” Niewood explains. The next step for The Friendship Initiative is to start implementing a fundraising plan to reach the $16 million it will take to remodel the park.

Niewood proudly adds, “The 50-acre park will be the only community park of its kind in the entire country.”

For more information on The Friendship Initiative, including its Rock Dreams music program with School of Rock, call 954.464.6078 or visit thefriendshipinitiative.org.