He who has hope, has everything.
So says Austin Benjamin, personal trainer and owner of Essential Fitness in Port Ewen. Exhibit A: Benjamin’s diligent work with 29-year-old Travis Luria of Port Ewen. The two over the past year have labored mightily to help build Luria’s confidence and strength, inside and out, so Luria can do something many thought impossible — get up out of his wheelchair and walk.
Along with John Fischer, a photographer taking pics for an upcoming book on Ulster County, I met up with Benjamin, Travis and Allison, Travis’ mom, to talk about Travis’ impressive gains and losses.
“I did it with hardly any painkillers,” Travis told the group, proudly.
“Travis has been a remarkable soldier,” his mom said. “Most kids who have this condition give up by age 7 and stop using the walker. No matter what his challenge was, he persevered.”
Travis, a part-time mailman at TenBroeck Commons in Lake Katrine, was born with cerebral palsy and several other life-threatening conditions — one of them being syringomyelia, which causes painful cysts to grow within the spinal cord — that limited his childhood to whatever it could be from a wheelchair and walker.
Though multiple surgeries improved his ability to walk, including one which placed two metal rods in his spine, Travis had ultimately stopped walking with crutches by the time he was 9.
Travis has endured 23 grueling surgeries on his spine, legs, brain, spinal cord—withstanding years of hospitalizations in New York City with unknown outcomes with his mother always by his side. Travis was often separated from his home and community, sometimes for months at a time living in a rehab hospital or a Ronald McDonald House.
Travis often grins big. He is a gentle, polite, well-rounded and playful fellow who does everything from playing the drums, reading Marvel Comics and watching movies to performing contemporary Christian rap. Travis has a wing of his house with his own entrance and a private bedroom and bathroom, which allows a level of independence, and responsibility for himself.
Travis did theater as a kid and loves to interact with people. He is quick to break into a warm smile and likes to joke around. He is very connected to music and often experiences the world through it, using it to express feelings he cannot easily put into words. Thanks to his background with theater, he listens to Broadway musicals Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, humbly admitting he relates to the characters’ stories of overcoming hardship.
Travis’ lifestyle of multiple weekly doctor visits, prolonged hospital stays and learning disabilities rendered public school impossible. Travis entered the school in the Rifton Bruderhof community with reading challenges and mired in dyslexia, as well in a full body cast. As challenging as school was, he said he did get to sleigh ride, and climb mountains. Travis’ friends are mostly from that school, and from the congregations of his church communities, Morning Star Fellowship and Cross Point Fellowship.
Cross Point pastor Pete Shults, has known Travis for two decades and said that his admiration for Travis continues to grow. “He is a remarkable young man,” said Shults. “Travis has undergone over 20 major surgeries, and through it all, he has demonstrated courage, a beautiful faith in Jesus and a wonderfully positive attitude.”
Shults noted his appreciation for Travis’ compassion and remarked how Travis has used his experiences to help care for and encourage others as they move through their challenges. “He listens deeply, faithfully prays for people and then follows up in a way that truly blesses them,” said Shults. “Travis has a smile that lights up a room. He brings joy to life and inspires everyone he meets. He’s an actor, a creative songwriter, a rapper and a lovable nut. I treasure his friendship and thank God for him.”
Allison first heard about Austin Benjamin’s success with training special-needs and disabled kids from fellow cerebral palsy parents online. Though Travis has endured draining physical therapy sessions since early childhood, he had never gotten results like he has since he started working with Benjamin.
When Travis and Allison first came into Essential Fitness, the goal was simply to stay out of the wheelchair. “We were not planning on Travis actually walking,” said Benjamin, who said Travis had been told that he would be full-time in the wheelchair soon. “I always say, without hope, you have nothing. Travis just needed the confidence and hope that he could actually stand. I glossed over the medical stuff and kept focusing on the fact it could happen.”
So Benjamin began with exercises designed to strengthen Travis’ atrophying legs, improve his core strength and increase his balance. First training weekly, Travis responded so positively to Benjamin’s personal style of quips, encouragement, play and “can-do attitude that Allison and Travis decided to up the sessions to twice weekly.
That was the game-changer. “When they first came in, they told me that Travis would be in a wheelchair,” said Benjamin. “But I told them to forget what the doctors say, and that he would be able to stay out of the chair. Without hope, you have nothing, right? His mom was trying to get him back to crutches. Confidence and hope that he could actually stand and walk with crutches, was the goal.” So Benjamin said he just glossed over the prognosis, and kept focusing on getting Travis on his feet.
In his life prior to owning Essential Fitness, Benjamin was a semi-professional rugby player who studied physical education in college and earned a certificate in therapeutic recreation. Once a personal trainer in an Upper East Side gym, Benjamin also worked at the Children’s Home in Kingston with special needs and autistic children. He currently teaches special needs students in his gym of all ages, and works with physically disabled people, helping to get them to the next level. Benjamin is a natural coach, coaching everything from Pop Warner to a girls’ high school rugby team to men’s softball.
“I push Travis,” said Benjamin. “He is very self-motivated. He will moan when his mom walks in, for her benefit, really. I mess with him all the time. My relationship with him is close.” Travis goes to Benjamin’s softball games to cheer him on. Lately, Benjamin has been teaching Travis how to play basketball, knowing that’s what Travis has wanted to do since he was a kid, looking out his window at the other kids shoot hoops. Benjamin also assigns exercises for Travis to do at home.
Travis’ challenges and struggles are numerous, onerous and daily. In 2009, a rod in his back bent from missing a screw, buckling young Travis to the ground and breaking the rod. He required yet another surgery and painful recovery. His emotional journey is also his mother’s. “I promised myself if Travis survived [infancy], I would do everything possible to make sure he lived life to his fullest potential,” said Allison.
Travis actually attends Essential Fitness twice a week thanks to a grant that funds his extra visit, but that is about to run out. Benjamin is hopeful that someone will offer to sponsor training sessions for Travis once the grant is exhausted.
The motivating factor for Travis and Benjamin? “We are big into faith, which is a huge part of this. I believe,” said Benjamin, “with faith comes hope.” Travis added with a smirk and a laugh, “and responsibility.”
“[Benjamin] has a depth of caring that I have not seen in a long time, and an intuitiveness to understand the disabled body,” said Allison. “Travis and I have been to a lot of physical therapists, and Austin has some intuitive knowledge of that that I have never seen. He motivates Travis with tough love. He is not allowed to complain, he just has to work. He does work! He doesn’t do that for me.”
Travis’ goal was to walk with his crutches in time for his interview with me. The brand-new issue crutches were sealed in their plastic bag, waiting for Travis to open them for an assisted walk down the hall. But Travis and Benjamin worked so hard together that by interview time, Travis had a surprise that was so impressive that made everyone in the room weep.
Benjamin explained that he uses a special, high-speed vibratory machine that stimulates every muscle and nerve in the body. He said it yields good results with CP patients.
Benjamin also trains Travis with TRX adjustable bands for upper body strength, which Travis has already built up from the constant transfers to and from his chair.
“Travis needed to use less upper body, and use more legs. I would have him lower himself down and pull himself up,” said Benjamin. “I changed that he had to use more and more legs. Using a little pressure to pull him up.”
Benjamin’s goal was to have Travis stand up at the table last Thanksgiving. Benjamin even worked with Travis to help him sit unassisted in a regular chair. “We figured out how his knees have to [go], where to put his feet … We trained for this by having him pull himself up, and let go of TRX bands, leaving him standing.” Thanks to lower body building, core work and joking through the tears, Travis’ legs became increasingly stronger in a relatively short time, empowering Travis in a way that a lifetime of physical therapists were unable to.
Allison one day walked in to a training session to see Travis standing unassisted. “I was shocked because Travis has not been willing to try this for years,” said Allison. “He has been too frightened. I don’t think there has been anyone who believes in Travis as much as Austin does, and now he has confidence. Now he can grow and grow.”
Once the interview was over, Travis was bubbling over to show the group his hard-earned legs. Earlier in the day, Travis had taken several steps. Benjamin once again reminded Travis how to situate his knees and feet. Travis collected himself to focus and his eyes got dark. Travis tenuously, shakily and with groans rose out of his chair, with Benjamin’s hand on his back for reassurance. Allison looked both worried and relieved. Once standing, Travis broke out with an ear-to-ear grin. So did the rest of us.
Travis wanted to show us how he pushes a weighted sled for core training and did so with the same look of unwavering determination in his eyes shown when he stood. Each step was an obvious labor, evidenced by gasps and grunts, which only lead to an even more determined facial expression we called “beast mode.”
Finally, Travis was ready to show the group what he’d been working toward. Straining for stability, he situated his feet and knees. With Benjamin’s hand on his back to spot him, Travis looked at the group, screwed his face down into beast mode and pushed a leg forward. By the second step, perspiration was draining down his head, and he was visibly fatigued. Travis seemed to wobble with each step. Every time his body lost form, Benjamin steadily reminded him how to gather himself to make his next step. Travis responded with an even more intense gaze in his eyes.
Benjamin directed Travis to walk to his mother, who looked altogether terrified, and exhilarated. Travis slowly, painfully walked a respectable 10 yards to Allison, tears hovering in his own eyes, and fell into her arms with a hug.
Benjamin stepped out of the room to cry. Travis had walked right past his crutches, which were still sealed in plastic, lying on the floor.
“When they came to me, this was never about walking,” said an emotional Benjamin. “This was just to keep Travis out of the wheelchair.” Benjamin has readjusted. “Our new goal is to go from the walker to the crutches, stand straight up while using the crutches and use good form,” said Benjamin.
“Travis has never once said he cannot or will not. He never refuses. He never told me no. A few times he said I don’t know if I can do that, but he never said no, or I cannot. That always impresses me.”
“Today [Benjamin] said to me when my mom was not around, ‘Your mom is going to have you vacuum, wash dishes, maybe we shouldn’t tell her!’ I agreed,” said Travis.
It was not all jokes. “I have not felt this good and confident in a long time,” said Travis. “I have never felt this good before.”