Don't ever challenge Sam Smith to an enthusiasm contest.
The 29-year-old fitness instructor has the booming voice of a radio announcer, the optimistic outlook of a cheerleader and the boundless endurance of a marathon runner. (He's finished four.) So when he starts a warmup by shouting, "Welcome to Spirit Club! Let's clap it out," it's impossible not to put your hands together.
There's no question the program Smith is leading deserves the applause. Spirit - which stands for "Social Physical Interactive Respectful Inclusive Teamwork" - offers classes that help clients with developmental disabilities build muscle, increase flexibility and improve their diets. As a population, they have limited opportunities when it comes to health, Smith says. "And a lot need more social interaction," he adds.
What makes Smith such an expert? He's a certified personal trainer, and he also has autism.
"Sam gets them engaged more than a typically functioning trainer would be able to," says Jared Ciner, who launched Spirit in April 2013. Ciner had two jobs at the time: as a personal trainer at Sport & Health, a D.C. area gym chain, and as a support counselor with the Jubilee Association of Maryland, which provides residential services to disabled adults.
Recognizing that many of his Jubilee clients were uncomfortable in typical fitness settings, Ciner developed a curriculum just for them. Each class included partner exercises and group activities, proceeded at a pace that left plenty of extra time for answering questions and ended with a homework assignment that included an exercise to practice and a nutrition tip to follow.
After two sessions at a branch of Sport & Health, Ciner spun off Spirit Club as a separate entity that he now runs full-time. Over the past year, more than 100 students have participated in its classes at Chevy Chase Athletic Club, the Arc of Prince George's County and - as of this month - Spirit's own studio.
The space, at the front of the Jubilee headquarters in Kensington, Md., was formerly a used bookstore. Ciner and his small team of trainers, including Smith, worked to transform it into a welcoming fitness facility on a shoestring budget. With the help of Jubilee's director of development, Stephen Allen, Spirit scraped together the funds to put in gym flooring, a wall of mirrors, a boxing stand, a weight rack with dumbbells and a sound system - "so we can make it fun," Ciner says.
But more important than the equipment or location are the people. Every Spirit class starts in a circle, with introductions and exercise suggestions.
"I'm singing with my church group," shared Van Berg, 25, during a recent Sunday meet-up, before showing the other half-dozen participants a punching move. (Ciner demonstrated how to make it harder by squatting down and throwing his fists faster.) Next came Mary-Jo Wybierala, 52, who proposed, "Let's do head, shoulders, knees and toes." While stretching, she revealed that she'd just "made oodles of friends" playing bocce.
These types of interactions establish connections and empower students, Ciner says. Like every group he works with, this class has a mix of mobility issues, communication limitations and sensitivities. (Berg will stand back-to-back with a partner to pass a medicine ball, for instance, only if there are a few inches of air in between them.) As long as everyone feels involved, however, it's easy to overcome those hurdles, Ciner adds.
It also helps to be able to turn to Smith, who seems like he was born to do this.
"By the time I was 3 years old, I was kicking around soccer balls," Smith says. A year later, "he rode the training wheels right off his bike," adds his mother, Sara Sonet. His role model recently has been Jillian Michaels because he loves how the "Biggest Loser" trainer motivates people. But despite his enduring interest in all things athletic - as well as his fitness certification - he couldn't persuade a gym to hire him.
"With Sam, there is no lying back. He's so determined," Sonet says. "But I was worried. I thought the social component of personal training would be too challenging."
This past year has altered her perspective on what's possible. He's grown more patient with clients - including her. ("Now he says, 'If you can't do this, try this instead,' " Sonet marvels.) He recognizes when he needs to explain things again. And he's continued to expand his professional horizons. The latest development? Smith and Ciner just got certified to teach Zumba, which they're incorporating into the Spirit program.
"Okay, we're going to do Zumba, everybody. Zumba is dance fitness, everybody. It's dance and exercise at the same time," Smith proclaimed during that recent Sunday class, before shaking his rear end and jumping up and down.
With the opening of the Spirit Club studio, Ciner plans to add specialized offerings to the schedule. So students will soon be able to sign up for hour-long classes devoted to Zumba, yoga or self-defense.
"It's evolving into an environment where people with and without disabilities can feel comfortable working on all aspects of health," says Ciner, who notes that there are several options for clients who think the class format isn't the right fit or enough of a challenge. Sprit Plus is for clients who would benefit from having a family member or counselor join in alongside them. There's also one-on-one fitness training, as well as Spirit coaching, which is focused on healthful behaviors, such as smart grocery shopping, taking a walk or going swimming.
Romit Mitra, 34, who meets with Ciner twice a week in addition to taking classes, had attended another gym prior to Spirit Club. "The exercises there were harder to do. I felt sad," he says. But now, he's all smiles about getting to be active and see his friends.
Wybierala credits the classes with tightening her waist, bettering her balance and encouraging her to drink water. "It works," she boasts.
And although Berg admits that he often skips his homework - like many of us when it comes to exercise - he thinks it's fun to "get my moves moving." He hadn't had access to any sort of fitness program since he was in school, notes Berg's father, Jeff, who takes him to and from class.
"Sometimes he can get sedentary," Jeff Berg adds. "After he works out, he wakes up a little and his energy level jumps."
Everyone perks up after spending an hour with Smith, who speaks almost exclusively in affirmations. On stretching: "Your arms will take care of you." On diet: "You can eat those vegetables. Vegetables make you healthy and strong." On running, Zumba and several other activities: "Move those hips!"
But his most positive words of all are saved for what Spirit has done for him.
"It's changed my life," Smith says, "Because I get to be a part of it."