LaGRANGE — When most people see LaGrange Police Sgt. Johnny Byrd, he is proudly wearing his badge and department uniform.
Byrd often conducts informal meetings with various organizations in the community and formal meetings alongside Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar. He also enforces the law and helps crack down on code violations in the city limits.
But there are a few who see another side of Byrd — the man who shows up in gym pants, a T-shirt and tennis shoes twice a week to the Mike Daniel Recreation Center on Lafayette Parkway carrying bags of exercise equipment and ready to work up a sweat.
Byrd teaches a class called Opening Doors, a low-impact exercise session that helps folks living with conditions like multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy or recovering from a stroke.
“When I started coming here, I was having problems with my legs,” said class member Irene Bass. “Not so much anymore.”
The group of 23 people, which is filled with men and women of all ages, work every muscle group alongside Byrd, executing arm curls, chair sit ups, squats, and hip and shoulder rotations, among other exercises. The class uses light-weight exercise balls, stretch bands and even the back of the chair they are sitting in during the session.
“The class gives all of us something we can handle, even if we have a partial handicap, and the instructor is very understanding,” said Pat Horton.
Her husband, Lee, agreed.
“I work on flexibility on my left side. I had a stroke a few years ago,” he explained. “So we’re trying to get my flexibility and range of motion back.”
“And we will, slowly but surely,” Byrd assured him.
Byrd said the goal is to help participants keep moving and teach them activities they can perform at home.
“When people are facing physical handicaps, they tend to withdraw or do nothing,” Byrd explained. “The people in this class don’t do that. They want to get their bodies moving and they want to be here. They come here smiling.”
All the exercises are set to music — that is if you can hear it over the banter and laughter between Byrd and his students.
“He’s funny,” added Jack Dallas when asked to describe Byrd. “He’s nice, and I like him.”
“We appreciate Johnny and the extra effort he provides us,” said Lee Horton.
Byrd is familiar with his students’ physical ailments and struggles. The police sergeant is a Marine veteran who was forced to retire because of deteriorating ankle and knee joints, plus back issues.
He said he approached Tom Hunkele, the first Opening Doors instructor, who taught him the same exercises he was using in the class. When Hunkele announced he was leaving LaGrange and did not want the sessions to be dropped, he asked Byrd to take over as the full-time trainer. Byrd quickly agreed and became a certified fitness instructor.
“When Tom was leaving, we weren’t sure if we’d have another instructor,” said Stephanie Ringer. “But then he found Johnny, and I was really happy. … He always checks on us. If we don’t make it to class, he might call and ask if we’re OK or check up on us at the next class.”
The care, concern and training is something Byrd said comes straight from the heart. The sergeant uses his lunch break from the police department to teach the class. He does not get paid for it and said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Money can’t buy what I get out of this class,” he said. “These people keep me going and always keep me laughing. I know on Tuesday and Thursday I’ll have a half a day that will be great. They inspire me and keep me going. … They’re already motivated because they’re here. They want to get stronger, which motivates me.”
“It’s a good support for all of us,” said member Tim Anderson about the class. “All of us have different disabilities, but some of us have the same disabilities. We can talk, encourage and support each other.”
Byrd said he soon plans on teaching a similar Opening Doors class in Columbus at the Saint James Missionary Baptist Church.
Melanie Ruberti is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. She may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.