All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for December 2003

Aquatics teacher inspires students just by showing up

YMCA volunteer has positive outlook despite own illness

December 4, 2003
Mary Beth Breckenridge
Akron Beacon Journal

Pixie Gard works hard to help the students in her aquatics classes strengthen their muscles and improve their well-being.

Just by showing up, though, she also helps to strengthen their resolve.

The lifelong Wooster resident has multiple sclerosis, a disease that at one point forced her to learn to walk all over again. Yet she manages a full schedule of volunteerism that includes leading 12 aquatic exercise sessions every week -- most at the Wooster YMCA at the Ellen Shapiro Natatorium and one at the Orrville YMCA.

"She keeps going and going and going," said Margaret Fearon, a student in one of Gard's Wooster classes. "You just think, if Pixie can do it, I can do it."

Gard, 44, was diagnosed in 1981 after suffering her first attack. The episode kept her hospitalized for two months, robbed her of some of her sight and left her unable to walk or even to feed or dress herself -- skills she had to relearn.

Regular steroid treatments are keeping the disease in check for now, but Gard said its effects are unpredictable. So while she can, she's determined to give of herself.

"That was part of the reason I volunteer," she said. "I know where my disease is going.... I feel every day is by the grace of God."

Gard started at the YMCA in 1994 as a lifeguard -- an apt job, given her surname. She joked that it's just one of the reasons she embodies her name: Her parents named her Claudia, which means "lame," she explained with a grin and a roll of her eyes. But she's been Pixie ever since the nurses nicknamed her when she was born weighing just 5 pounds. With her slight build and cheerful manner, the moniker suits her.

Gard's first aquatics class was for people with arthritis, then she took on other classes as other instructors left. Her students have included people of all ages and a variety of situations. They currently include developmentally disabled women from a group home in Orrville and multiply handicapped children at two elementary schools.

"People say, 'Do you ever leave the pool?' I say, 'I go home to a water bed,' " she said with a laugh.

Fearon said Gard brings to the class a commitment to her students' welfare. Gard makes sure she has an exercise to address every physical challenge her students are facing, Fearon said, and she'll even offer help to the people with whom she strikes up conversations while she's swimming.

Just as important, though, Fearon said, Gard has an upbeat, caring attitude that makes class enjoyable and encourages members to bond as friends. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, "she makes life fun," Fearon said.

Fearon recently drafted a letter to the Wooster YMCA trustees commending Gard for her efforts. The notes written by some of the 71 people who signed it speak of Gard's influence -- notes like "My inspiration for coming back to the Y is Pixie Gard" and "She has a heart of gold. Love her!"

Fearon surprised her last week with news that two of her classes had collected enough money to send her to training in North Carolina offered by the American Exercise Association -- training Gard had planned to finance out of her own pocket.

Besides her aquatics classes, Gard spends four or five hours a week volunteering with People to People, a ministry in Wooster that assists people in need, and she is co-facilitator of the Wayne-Holmes Multiple Sclerosis Support Group. She's also a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol, although she said she's not as active in that.

Gard said she wasn't always so others-oriented. She was the No. 1 singles tennis player at Wooster High School, and the careers she pursued -- drafting and floral design -- were solitary as well.

Once she started volunteering, though, she discovered the fulfillment of focusing on others' needs.

"And what's life all about?" she asked rhetorically. "It's about sharing. It's about giving."

Copyright © 2003, Akron Beacon Journal