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Big Ideas: “A movement of fitness classes for the special-needs community” With Laura Radocaj of Sunday Strong

According to studies, 91 percent of adults with Intellectual Disabilities are not getting the required amount of physical activity recommended by the National Institutes of Health. This statistic is jaw-dropping and I want to change it. If we can get adults with ID to attend three Sunday Strong classes a week, we will be able […]

According to studies, 91 percent of adults with Intellectual Disabilities are not getting the required amount of physical activity recommended by the National Institutes of Health. This statistic is jaw-dropping and I want to change it. If we can get adults with ID to attend three Sunday Strong classes a week, we will be able to do that. The benefits of exercise are plentiful and we need so badly to welcome and encourage this population into the fitness community. This population faces barriers to accessing fitness facilities. A lack of appropriate program offerings, membership costs and fear of feeling unwelcome are factors. Sunday Strong is removing these barriers. More than 30 Sunday Strong athletes are now making exercise a priority because they feel welcomed and want to attend our fun classes geared especially toward their interest and ability. This is what we call “sustainable activity” and we are confident it will improve the quality of life for all our athletes.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Radocaj, founder and president of Sunday Strong. Laura has spent more than 12 years working as a public relations specialist. She is the owner of Radocaj Creative, based in Vero Beach, Florida. Prior to that, she worked at DGI Comm, a full-service public relations agency in Manhattan. Laura is the director of CrossFit Kids at Vero Strength + Conditioning, where she has built a successful program to help children get physical activity in a fun, competitive environment. When she is not working, she serves as a volunteer coach in the community for youth soccer, basketball and lacrosse. Laura graduated from Villanova University with a double major in communication and sociology.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sunday Strong was inspired by my sister, Maria, who has intellectual disabilities (ID). In 2016, I accompanied Maria to a Special Olympics golf tournament and was alarmed by the poor physical condition of the majority of the athletes. Over the course of many years, it has become evident to me that Maria’s quality of life is better when she is exercising. While she has no control over her disability, she can control her own health, and I wanted to figure out a way to help make physical health a priority for Maria and her peers.

In January 2017, I started a weekly free strength and conditioning class at Vero Strength + Conditioning for adults with ID. My hope was that welcoming athletes into a community that encouraged a healthy lifestyle would help motivate them. The improvement in the health of many athletes was staggering. Athletes who couldn’t get onto the ground by themselves and back up on their feet were doing burpees. Athletes who never ran before were running 400M. On the flip side, the class attracted volunteers to Sunday Strong who had never previously worked with the special-needs community. I encouraged them to treat these adults as typical athletes — for that is indeed what they are. Hearts and arms were opened, and a community was formed where everyone involved had been positively impacted. I knew this class had to be replicated by other fitness providers, so in October 2018 I started looking into turning it into a non-profit.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I was going through my seven-year-old daughter’s backpack and I found a piece of paper with different logo designs for Sunday Strong scribbled in her handwriting. At that time, I was constantly talking about needing a new logo and sketching potential ideas for one. I didn’t realize that she was absorbing it all, and was investing her own time into Sunday Strong. I have often found entries in her school journal about Sunday Strong, and she even wrote an article on the classes to hand out to people to help bring awareness to the program. She knows all of the Sunday Strong athletes’ names, and is always greeting them at class. By being in the middle of it all, she has opened her heart and knows how to treat people with special needs: no differently than anyone else. She will now pass this down and educate her peers to be more accepting. As both a mom and the founder of Sunday Strong, this makes my heart happy.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Sunday Strong is a 501c3 non-profit with a mission to increase physical activity in adults with ID. We are doing this by working with fitness facilities in Indian River County, Florida, to host weekly exercise classes for athletes with ID at no charge. We currently have partnered with five gyms that offer five weekly classes, including CrossFit, yoga, Zumba and functional fitness. We are well on our way to building a network of seven local gyms so that athletes can exercise up to seven days per week. Then we will replicate our success on a national level.

How do you think this will change the world?

According to studies, 91 percent of adults with ID are not getting the required amount of physical activity recommended by the National Institutes of Health. This statistic is jaw-dropping and I want to change it. If we can get adults with ID to attend three Sunday Strong classes a week, we will be able to do that. The benefits of exercise are plentiful and we need so badly to welcome and encourage this population into the fitness community. This population faces barriers to accessing fitness facilities. A lack of appropriate program offerings, membership costs and fear of feeling unwelcome are factors. Sunday Strong is removing these barriers. More than 30 Sunday Strong athletes are now making exercise a priority because they feel welcomed and want to attend our fun classes geared especially toward their interest and ability. This is what we call “sustainable activity” and we are confident it will improve the quality of life for all our athletes.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Absolutely not! Sunday Strong is fueled on giving back to your community and love. This combination makes it hard to foresee drawbacks!

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

That “tipping point” was when I was at the Special Olympics golf tournament with my sister and was struck by the poor health of many of the athletes. While waiting for Maria to tee off, I started doing some research and learned that 60 percent of special-needs athletes are overweight, 25 percent have low bone density and 20 percent have high blood pressure. I knew we had a major problem on our hands and was determined to find a way that I could help solve it with the resources and knowledge that I had.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Awareness. I need adults with ID and their caregivers to be aware of the current problem of the lack of physical activity and be committed to wanting to help change that by coming to Sunday Strong classes. I need fitness facilities and their coaches/instructors to know about Sunday Strong and how much of a difference they can make in the lives of adults with ID by volunteering ONE hour a week to our mission.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Take an accounting class in college.

As a founder of a startup non-profit, I am responsible for our bookkeeping and have learned QuickBooks on the fly. Wow. There is a learning curve and I often think that maybe I should have opted for an accounting class instead of that online film analysis class that I thought would be an easy A at the time!

2. Keep a journal.

While it is not too late for this one, I wish I would have journaled my early days of starting this non-profit. It is quite an emotional roller coaster, and it would be nice to go back and read entries and remind myself it all worked out!

3. You can’t make everyone happy.

No matter what you do, someone is going to be unhappy. This is life, and while it stinks — because personally I am a people pleaser and it pains me to know I made someone unhappy — you can’t get too hung up on it. Try your best to let the person know why something is the way it is, and if they are still unhappy, you have to move on and not harp on it. Remember, fill that brain with positive things!

4. Find a mentor.

While your idea might be groundbreaking (or so you think), there is someone who has gone down a similar path and has gained a lot of knowledge from both their successes and mistakes. Chances are, that someone is willing to share with you their expertise if you ask. My brother’s friend, Mike Erwin, is the founder of two non-profits, TeamRWB and The Positivity Project. As I was struggling with my 501c3 paperwork, I sent him a text message asking him if he would be open to scheduling a call with me so I could get his insight and advice. He responded immediately and we were scheduled to speak that week. That one call was so valuable, as he answered many questions that I was struggling with, and it led to many more calls as he offered to be an advisor to Sunday Strong. His guidance has been instrumental and I am so happy I reached out to him and asked him for that phone call!

5. Lean on your Board.

To form a non-profit, you have to appoint a Board of Directors. The Board should be comprised of people with various backgrounds and who have experience to help provide guidance and direction to the work you are doing. With a startup non-profit, the Board should be a “working” Board, which means not only are they tapped into for their opinions but should also be taking on various projects and helping with the to-do list. As a founder, you feel like you want to do everything by yourself in the beginning and it is hard to delegate. This is how you get burned out, and you never want to be a deflated leader!

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Founding and running a non-profit is a labor of love. No matter what the future brings, we will always need people on the ground willing to help and serve others. I am not concerned about future-proofing my career!

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I would spend it on getting more fitness facilities to host classes and an athlete’s incentive program to reward athletes for getting in the required amount of exercise every week. Every dollar I would spend would be aimed at HOW I can get MORE classes in the U.S. and MORE athletes in these classes.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Be nice. My dad’s favorite quote is, “It’s nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice,” and he used to say it often when I was growing up.

Work hard. Whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee, hard work is the only thing that will make you successful and keep you successful. If you are in a career where you don’t want to work hard, get out of it. You are stagnant and are not interested in the work you are doing. Find something that drives you and inspires you to work hard.

Take care of yourself. Everyone is busy, but there are 24 hours in a day. You can find one hour to do something for yourself. For me, it is exercise. Getting my workout in from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. gives me the jumpstart I need for my day, and makes sitting in a desk chair for six to eight hours a little more bearable.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I think the most successful mindset is to go into everything you do believing you will be successful. Your brain only has capacity for so much, and I like to fill it with positive thoughts and energy rather than negative. When I started Sunday Strong, I told my husband I will be speaking at the White House one day because our program has drastically impacted the lives of those with ID and is expanding their life expectancy. Bold statement, right? Well, I believe it. Some may think it is cocky or overconfident; I don’t. I think if you are doing anything, you need to approach it with all the reasons why you CAN achieve it, and not bog yourself down with why you can’t.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Studies have shown the overwhelming physical and mental health benefits of regular exercise for individuals with ID. Despite these benefits, adults with ID do not participate in sufficient amounts of physical activity. This population faces social and environmental barriers to accessing fitness facilities. A lack of appropriate program offerings, membership costs and fear of feeling unwelcome are factors. Sunday Strong is removing these barriers, creating sustainable physical activity for adults with ID.

Social support has been identified as a strong correlate of physical activity participation, and is the foundation of Sunday Strong. We support fitness providers as they host weekly group exercise classes geared toward adults with ID at no cost to the participants. Our approach of immersing adults with ID into their local fitness communities provides them with social support from both their peers and volunteer instructors who are health and wellness advocates.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook and Instagram: @besundaystrong

Instagram: Radocaj4

Facebook: Laura Radocaj

Website: sundaystrong.org

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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