Connor Stickney said he's learned an important lesson in the last few months: Just do what Joy Wagner says.
Wagner is the founder of NeuroBalance Center in Barrington, which offers a wide array of therapy, classes and services for people with injuries or progressive diseases that affect their mobility.
Stickney, of Deer Park, was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash in June 2020 and has been getting physical therapy and other services at NeuroBalance since early spring.
"When I first met Joy, I could tell that she was somebody that was going to push me out of my comfort zone in the right ways," Stickney said. "She has so much energy, and she really thrives off helping people get more mobile."
A unique place
The Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, welcomes clients who have suffered from strokes or have conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and other neuromuscular and autoimmune diseases. It offers individual training and group classes including boxing, yoga and circuit.
There are services for physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, functional medicine and neurology, disease management and more, all taught by trained professionals. The high-tech equipment includes a Pilates Reformer machine and AlterG antigravity treadmill. Clients come from all over the Chicago area. Others receive virtual consultations or fly in for a few days.
NeuroBalance is unique in that it offers everything under one roof and charges a fee only to those who can afford it, said Wagner, a pediatric nurse diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago. The center also offers pickup and drop-off within a radius of about 8 miles with a wheelchair-accessible van.
The center provided about 5,800 services in 2019, with a 30% growth this year, Wagner said. Just as importantly, it is a community of peers who understand and encourage each other through their good days and bad.
"Action inspires action -- and you want to see people taking action," Wagner said.
Stickney's journey toward recovery has been painful: His leg was amputated below the knee, and his femur, which has a pin, has not healed yet.
But he has made major progress, both physically and mentally. He attributes that to the support of his wife -- who also was injured in the crash caused by a careless driver -- his family, and the staff of the center.
He especially loves the horseback riding program, offered by NeuroBalance in partnership with BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center in Harvard. It was Wagner who pushed Stickney to ride, a great workout that also helped him regain his confidence and build an unexpected connection with a favorite horse, he said.
"I've learned ... 'Just do what Joy says,'" he said.
People need to know they are not alone and that others face the same challenges, such as finding resources and inclusivity for people with disabilities, Wagner said.
To that end, the center is launching a free, virtual "Lived and Learned" conversations series to spread the word about the center, and perhaps prompt others to start offering similar classes and services, Wagner said.
"I am hoping to inspire other communities and other activists to say, 'We want one in our community,' and start," Wagner said. "You can start small with a class and a poster in a yoga studio. I am happy to advise and help people."
The first conversation, to be broadcast at 7 p.m. Sept. 23, will be between Wagner and veteran journalist Lesley Stahl, who discussed living with a spouse who has Parkinson's disease. People can register at neurobalancecenter.org.
"We chose Lesley partially because I've been watching her since she did a story in 2015 with her husband," Wagner said. "I feel like I've lived it, because I have MS, and she has learned by being the loved one and the caregiver for someone who has Parkinson's. We have a shared story."
After she was diagnosed in 2001, Wagner, who lives in Inverness, was determined to learn more about how to help herself and others with her condition.
She started offering a fitMS class for people with physical challenges, first at a local yoga studio, then at YMCAs and gyms throughout the suburbs.
She partnered with Dr. LeeAnn Steinfeldt to open fitMS NeuroBalance Center in 2010.
The center moved in 2017 into a new 10,000-square-foot building thanks to a $3.4 million capital campaign, with the largest donor being the Foglia Family Foundation.
Another new offering at the Center is a pre-screening concussion program expected to launch soon, said Stephanie Kangas, who works as director of philanthropy and development at the center. The program will provide a baseline assessment for people who are at risk for concussions, such as kids and teens who play impact sports.
Kangas, of Chicago, has multiple sclerosis and is a client of the center, to which she was introduced when she was studying to obtain a master's in public health about three years ago.
"I was blown away by the equipment," she said. "I had never really seen anything like that. There are all kinds of things that when you think it's impossible for you to do, they somehow make it possible."
Being diagnosed with a chronic, progressive disease, particularly at a young age, can understandably trigger anger and cause depression, Kangas said. The key is to find the right support and take control of ways to maintain your independence and quality of life -- and the center gives people that hope, she said.
"I think it's that sense of being around people who are like you. You don't have to talk about it. You don't have to explain why you fell from the treadmill -- people know," she said.
"Sometimes you need to be picked up, and sometimes you are the person picking up."