Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in health and wellness but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Melissa Renner, Founder of Active For Life, located in Cleveland, OH, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
In summary, Active For Life works with special populations, such as individuals with neurodegenerative diseases and neurological disorders, individuals living with cognitive or physical impairments, and older adults through their proprietary brain & body seated exercise/dance programs, TAP TIME™ and SEATED RHYTHM™. Our TAP TIME™ program even has a patent pending tap shoe covers and hand tap covers, truly making our programs as inclusive as possible. Most recently, Active For Life was featured in the latest issue of the American Academy of Neurology's Brain & Life® magazine. Active For Life has been featured on many news channels and has expanded into over 50 facilities (all levels of care) across the country. Our programs are both onsite and virtual in assisted living facilities, memory care, skilled nursing and rehabilitation, adult day care, independent living, or from the comfort of someone's home. Special populations do not have enough programs offered to them. They need more, and they deserve more. The profound response from participants has been the catalyst for our growth. These results have been nothing short of remarkable. We have individuals responding to our programs who do not respond to traditional exercise. We have individuals in memory care facilities or assisted living facilities move like they haven't in years and even have memories evoked. We have family members break down in tears to see glimpses of the loved one they remembered before a disease entered their lives or before they could no longer live on their own.
Tell us about yourself
I founded Active For Life in 2017, and it was one of the best decisions that I've ever made. I have the joy of witnessing beautiful moments with beautiful souls every day. Although, I am getting a bit ahead of myself. Rewind to late 2016. I was working as a corporate wellness director (my background is in exercise science and public health). While I love all things health and wellness related, something was missing in my heart. I decided to resign from my current role after this revelation and some major life changes. After some deep inner reflection, I realized that I needed the fulfillment and joy of working with special populations like I have done throughout my life in different capacities. I began volunteering in nursing homes at a very young age. I continued to volunteer not only in nursing homes but also with children and adults living with special needs. I also taught adapted fitness classes in previous years. I thought to myself, "What would I do if I could work for free?". This was it. Albeit, there have been several factors that inspired me to create Active For Life and have it evolve into what it is today. It is also worth noting that I lost my grandmother and stepfather to Alzheimer's Disease, which has been markedly important in my inspiration to serve this population through our compassionate programs.
We are now in early 2017. I am also teaching ballroom dancing in the evenings and just founded Active For Life; still determining exactly the route I want to take to work with special populations and only offering a few different services. I was asked by an independent living facility to teach a ballroom dance class to their residents. To my surprise, only 2 or 3 residents could partake in the class due to the fact that the other residents were either in a wheelchair or did not have the stability or strength to participate in standing. My heart was saddened by this. I thought, "This is their era. How do I bring ballroom dancing to them if they are seated?" (My grandparents met at the Aragon Ballroom on West 25th St. in the 40s and were married for over 60 years. Dancing was such a big part of their lives). I went home that night, put myself in a chair, and was determined to figure out a way to receive the cognitive and physical benefits of dance, not to forget the joy of dance, from my seat. I started doing seated cha cha and mambo steps, coupled with imperative exercises, and choreographed them to music. I had no idea what an impact this class would have and lead to. And that was when Active For Life's first proprietary program was born, SEATED RHYTHM™.
I began knocking on doors and cold calling every facility I came across. I had a lot of no's and a couple of yes's. I was blown away at the response that I was receiving from individuals participating in this class, especially individuals with severe Alzheimer's Disease or dementia. There were individuals who didn't respond to traditional exercise modalities coming to life in this class. Staff would be so amazed they'd call the Executive Director down to come to witness this incredible response. I knew I had something, so I offered to teach free classes for facilities that said no for them to try out my SEATED RHYTHM™ program. It was similarly successful in each facility. Fast forward, and we are now offering our programs in close to 45 facilities within 7 counties in Northeast Ohio and are now providing our programs to a few facilities nationwide. It is not uncommon to have family members of a participant moved to tears during a class, to see their family member who has been nonresponsive come to life and even have memories evoked. There is nothing more motivating than these incredible moments and bringing joy to underserved populations!
Fast forward to late 2019/early 2020. I noticed that when I had participants create sound in the song we were doing our seated 'dancercise' choreography to, for example, clapping their hands, there were more fantastic responses. I then had an epiphany…TAP DANCING! You are part of the beat of the song when you tap. I knew from that movement that I needed to create a seated tap class for the groups I work with. I immediately began thinking about how participants wearing traditional tap shoes would not be feasible or kind for the populations we largely work with to wear, taking into consideration that many of the participants we work with may require a caregiver or nurse to help them get dressed or put on shoes (which can be very stressful and taxing on them).
In addition, many individuals we work with wear special orthopedic shoes. I knew a narrow and stiff tap shoe would not be a viable option and would also require the exact shoe size of the participants. I then thought, "What if I invented a tap shoe they could wear over their shoe?" This way, they wouldn't have to worry about taking their shoes off and could wear whatever shoe or slipper they wanted and already were wearing. I did just that. I invented (now patent pending) a tap shoe cover that stretches so it can fit over any shoe. Since there are times when there may be an individual participating in our classes that do not have use of their legs, I also invented a hand tap cover to make the program as inclusive as possible. Similar to SEATED RHYTHM™, the new proprietary program, TAP TIME™, was a hit! We even have small boards made to bring the dance floor to the participant if they are living in a space that has carpet.
We also offer instructor training now, so individuals from all over the country can become trained in our programs and offer them in their region. Active For Life has been lucky enough to catch the eye of Brain & Life magazine through the American Academy of Neurology which helped us start to expand nationally. We have evolved to not only offering our services to facilities but now directly to customers who can use our products and take our classes from the privacy of their homes. We also now have a video option of our aforementioned programs (DVD and downloadable option), so individuals who cannot come to our class can follow along from home.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
It's definitely been an accomplishment to see the proprietary programs and patent pending products I created thrive and expand throughout the country. Albeit, the biggest accomplishment is seeing how profoundly these programs have brought joy and positively helped individuals, their families, and caregivers.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
Being an entrepreneur and business owner during the pandemic definitely created some unique challenges. In 2020 we were essentially shut down for months. We work with groups and high-risk groups at that. Albeit, the 'dumpster fire' that 2020 presented to many of us became an opportunity. We needed to find a way to continue to help the individuals we work with through our programs. (Our programs are designed to not only be good brain and body exercise but to bring joy. Joy and connection are equally important.) That was when we began offering our classes virtually. The struggles not only we faced but the individuals we worked with faced also helped ignite the idea of creating a video. It would solve several problems. From the pandemic, these high-risk groups are more isolated than the general population. We still are experiencing shutdowns at facilities or individuals not comfortable leaving their homes. It was a tragedy to see so many participants we worked with isolated in a small room for weeks and for some even months. Activities Directors expressed that their residents didn't have the resources or capability to stream a live class in their room and could only watch DVDs. We knew we needed to accommodate.
Not all nursing homes can afford our onsite or virtual services. Not all individuals have access to our virtual or onsite classes. A video would solve these problems. This video allows us to reach individuals on a much larger scale. We want to help as many people as possible with our programs to help improve their quality of life. This was the next step. What started as a huge challenge ended up being an inspiration to reach even more individuals and still provide our programs when they are so isolated. I could go on and on about the damage that isolation can cause. I could go on and on about the damage and ripple effect that isolation can cause on our minds and bodies. Movement and connection are so important for a plethora of reasons.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
My three tips would be to follow your passion, take risks, believe in yourself, and learn from your mistakes (okay, that's four, but equally important, haha).
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
We want to share the love and positive impact of our programs through our instructor training. There is a demand across the country. Compassionate individuals, please don't be shy and reach out!
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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