Mobilized to greatness

Gavilan’s Adapted PE Program provides the disabled with a new lease on life

ALL WALKS OF LIFE Gavilan College’s Adapted PE builds self-confidence with specially-designed physical education programs for individuals with disabilities. Featured: Michelle Kamalani and Judy Martinez. Photo: Robert Eliason

Challenges faced by individuals with disabilities or those recovering from a serious injury are incomprehensible, and many times what’s needed most is an environment that not only promotes physical healing, but inspires the motivation to overcome these dramatic challenges, and provides them with the knowledge that they are not alone. Gavilan College’s Adapted PE program provides just that, offering a supportive team of professional instructors in a welcoming environment.
“You’re working at your level, you’re advocating for yourself and you’re getting what you need, and it’s at their speed,” Karen Sato, 62, instructor of the program, said.
Adaptive PE is a physical education program designed for students with disabilities, with a current enrollment of approximately 160 students. Dave Ellis created the program in 1973 and Sato moved into his role in 2011 after Ellis retired.
Sato’s association with Gavilan started years earlier. In 1974 after graduating from Live Oak High school she enrolled in Gavilan college to pursue a degree in physical education.
During her first year, the DSPS coordinator, Carol Ghirladucci-Cooper, asked if she’d consider volunteering as a mobility aid in the Adapted PE class. Although Sato admits initially it seemed a “scary idea”, she decided to try it.
“I was picturing these people not doing very well and using wheelchairs,” Sato said.
What Sato encountered on her first assignment, assisting a young woman named Sharon who was an odd quad, (a quadriplegic who gained additional movement), changed her life.
“The first time I met Sharon was in a classroom and here’s this woman doing a wheelie in her wheelchair, so that’s my introduction and I thought, oh, no problem,” Sato said.
That experience inspired Sato to move beyond her original goal and after attaining her AA, she continued her education at San Francisco State where she received a BA and her Master’s degree in Orientation and Mobility for the blind and visually impaired. Upon her graduation from SFSU in 1981, Sato returned to Gavilan to begin her career helping the students with disabilities. The reason she’s remained at there for the past 34 years is simple. It’s the students.
“When they make that little bit of improvement, it’s just amazing,” Sato said. “Their self-confidence just grows, it’s exciting, it’s just fabulous.”
As much as she’s loved her job Sato has decided that this May she will retire from Gavilan, but she has every confidence that the program, which began 46 years ago, will continue.
“It’s successful I think, because of the staff, a dedicated staff, great staff,” Sato said, adding that the Accessible Education Center, which the APE program is under, has a current staff of 21.
The program itself consists of two classes, the Adapted Swimming class, which offers students a state of the art recently remodeled pool. This course helps to improve flexibility and range of motion, increase joint movement, improve circulation, and improve control of body movement through water, which remains at a consistent temperature of 86 degrees year-round.
Student Amanda Sachtleben, who broke her neck in a mountain biking accident 18 years ago, found it to be the only treatment that made a difference for her.
“I’ve tried just everything under the sun as far as treatments go, I’ve even gone for a full stem cell treatment, and I haven’t found as much relief as I have with the pool,” Sachtleben said.
“Being in there with other people, you don’t have to explain what’s wrong with you, you just come together on the same plane. That does something to your spirit that gives you strength to continue, it gives you strength to go on because it’s hard to continue every day when you’re hurting. We have a lot of fun too, there’s a lot of laughter, it’s uplifting.”
The program also offers students Adapted PE classes in a specially designed mini gym complete with wheelchair accessible equipment, including, a stretching table, whole body vibration units which promotes circulation, balance and stretching, and a floor made of safety cushioned material.
Morgan Hill resident, Eric Gould, who was born with cerebral palsy, has participated in the program for the past 18 years, spending an average of three hours a day, four days a week utilizing both classes.
“My heart rate is good, my blood pressure has gone down, and my energy level is high, Gould said, adding, “It makes you feel better, physically, mentally, it’s all good.”
Part-time program instructor for the past three years, Eric Lopez, who works closely with Sato, is an advocate of both.
“I always tell everyone you should be doing both classes,” Lopez said.
Lopez holds BA degrees in both political science and exercise science, and a Master’s degree in sports conditioning and performance. He is slated to continue teaching the courses when Sato retires, and as excited as he is about the opportunity, he will miss his mentor.
“Karen is just vibrant, always cheerful, that’s one thing I love about her,” Lopez said. “She can’t sit still she’s always going, she’s always making us laugh.”
To continue his professional development Lopez returned to graduate school to attain a geriatric certification, which he’ll complete by June. Eric started his career at Gavilan as an APE mobility aide 14 years ago, and he feels that he has returned to his calling.
“I believe God’s put me in this path to help older adults to live a longer and hopefully healthy life as they age,” Lopez said, adding,
“I want the students to know that this is a place where everyone from all walks of life are accepted no matter what the disability is.”
From the start of her career, Sato’s goal has been to keep students motivated and committed to the program.
“If you’re coming in here I want you to be comfortable, I want you to be happy, I want you to feel you can do it,” Sato said.
It seems to be a winning philosophy, just ask her students.
“Karen is positive and you just know she’s trying to get you to better yourself, and I definitely am,” student Michelle Kamalani, 51, said. Kamalani joined the program in 2017 after undergoing surgery for the removal of a golf ball sized brain tumor.
“They went in on my right side, so therefore I have numbness on my left side and my left foot slightly drags from it and my left hand has a mind of its own sometimes,” Kamalani said, adding, “Being here, seeing the other people and their disabilities, really helps you to realize a lot of the time life isn’t so bad, you’re not alone.”
Gilroy resident, James Peterson agrees with Kamalani. He first took part in the program nine years ago after developing a staph infection in his leg. Born with cerebral palsy he needed the assistance of canes to walk before the infection, after, he was restricted to a wheelchair.
Peterson’s doctor prescribed swimming and recommended Gavilan’s Adapted PE Program, which he participated in for two years. Last October he returned to the program due to a spike in his blood sugar levels and a significant weight gain. Now that he’s back, he plans on staying.
“You feel better about yourself, it gives you incentive, you feel better physically and it gives you a purpose,” Peterson said, adding, “You make friends here, it’s a family, it really is a family.”
For further information on the program and how to register, go to:, or contact the Accessible Education Center office at, 408.848.4865.

Kimberly Ewertz
Latest posts by Kimberly Ewertz (see all)
About Kimberly Ewertz
Kimberly Ewertz is a freelance writer for South Valley magazine and Gilroy Dispatch.