Cabrini Grant Enrollee Sees Changes

Daniel Bonilla could see that his efforts were changing lives in ways he never could have imagined.

In fact, the impact of what he did, particularly in an age of Covid, sometimes left him in tears.

Bonilla, the director of clinical integration at the Healthplex Fitness Center, has been providing one-to-one virtual workouts for several months now with participants of a Mother Cabrini Foundation grant. In anticipation of the opening of the new SBH Health and Wellness Center, the grant has provided free weekly virtual exercise and cooking classes to Bronx residents at the fitness center and the SBH Center for Culinary Medicine and Teaching Kitchen, respectively. Those who complete the virtual program get an added benefit: six months of free in-person classes at the health and wellness center.

“It’s not just the numbers on the scale that we are changing, but the way these people look at life,” says Bonilla. “A lot them say that Covid has left them very stressed out, that they feel trapped in their homes. We’ve helped make their days go faster and put their minds at ease. With the workouts, they get more oxygen in their lungs and their stress levels go down. I give them homework – workouts to do on their own. They seem to appreciate everything we’re doing. The pandemic has turned their lives upside down, where even going down to the corner store is riskier than ever. This has really helped their mental wellbeing.” Many of the participants, he says, are starting from scratch when it comes to exercise. Not only do they lack any exercise equipment, but are forced to source out workout areas in tiny apartments that are not conducive to doing pushups or leg lifts, or even stretching. So, Bonilla often needs to be creative. If they don’t have dumbbells, he may suggest filling up a gallon jug with water or using a can of beans. For those without workout mats, Bonilla may have them lay towels on a linoleum floor or a carpet.

“With all of them the main goal is to lose weight,” says Bonilla. “But sometimes it can become more of a therapy session than a workout session. Their mental makeup is the biggest thing. If they become more confident in themselves, if they improve their self-esteem, they’re much more apt to move and eat properly.” He always begins sessions by asking his clients how they’re feeling. “How’s your body? Are you getting enough sleep? How much water are you drinking? A lot of them don’t want to talk about weight, so it’s not about how much weight did they lose, but about becoming a healthier person.”

Their ages range from 13 to over 50. Many come with baggage. One woman, he says, had all the signs of depression when the sessions first started. By session four, she was well out of her funk. She bought workout clothes, lost 12 pounds, and enrolled her teenage son in the program. Classes are tailored to the individual. “Each is defined by the person’s own capabilities,” says Bonilla. “Everyone gets their heart rate up and gets an intense workout dependent on their own abilities.” Tarrell Mitchell, who calls himself Jadore, a name given to him as a child, is one of the few Cabrini participants with a history of working out. Self-employed in the fashion industry, he had been Cabrini Grant Enrollee Sees Changes doing strength training several days a week in a local gym until it closed in March because of the pandemic. “I had totally slacked off, I was not motivated at all,” he remembers. “I also felt in my mind that if I didn’t have weights, I wouldn’t be able to do anything productive. I was not motivated to do in-house workouts.”

In fact, all he was able to scrape together were a couple of stretch bands and a single 12-pound dumbbell he bartered from a friend. Pre-diabetic and gaining weight during his hiatus from the gym, he came across an announcement this summer about the Cabrini grant and enrolled.

“I was very skeptical about how it would work virtually, I had never done this before,” he says. “We started out stretching, moving different body parts. It was very personalized. I would say ‘I can’t do that,’ and he (Bonilla) would motivate me through it. I started grasping techniques. He really stepped it up by the second or third session.”

Bonilla started putting Jadore through intense hour-long workouts. He got him to focus on major muscle groups.

“He had a good base knowledge; he could do pushups, crunches and squats, but he was not engaging all the muscles needed to do them correctly,” says Bonilla. “His core was not engaged. But once he could do it, I started to challenge him more and he started to feel the workouts much more intensely.”

As the same time, Jadore was learning to pay more attention to his nutrition through his classes with Chef Emily Schlag at the teaching kitchen.

“I knew I had to start implementing things because of the pre-diabetes,” he says. “I started to buy avocado oil, salts, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, things that I never thought of before. I went out and bought cauliflower and spinach. The class has allowed me to feel comfortable and safe in the kitchen. I’ve learned meal prep and now I cook a lot.”

Bonilla says that Jadore’s shoulders today are broader and his body has more definition. “People are saying to him, ‘You look like you’ve been working out.’”

Jadore agrees. “I always left each session feeling empowered and energized,” he wrote in an appraisal of the program.”

Bonilla says Jadore is an example of the kind of improvements those enrolled under the Cabrini grant have made. In addition to putting on lean muscle mass, his A1C has dropped from borderline pre-diabetes to normal. His stamina and endurance, he says, has dramatically improved.

Jadore recently went out and bought himself a pullup bar. Where he was once lucky enough to do a half a pullup, he says he’s made great strides. He’s now good for anywhere between eight and 10.

Enrollment for free classes under the Cabrini grant for Bronx residents is still open. Contact for more information.