United Way of Northwest Vermont
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St. Albans Bone Builders class promotes healthy aging, strengthens social connections

Twice a week, Edna Chagnon, 89, gathers with neighbors to exercise and socialize in a sunny activity room inside St. Paul’s United Methodist Church where volunteer Debbie LeBlanc leads Bone Builders classes. Chagnon started coming to Bone Builders a couple years ago after experiencing a series of dangerous falls.

“I was going to physical therapy at the Northwestern Medical Center and my insurance ran out. The therapist suggested I try Bone Builders. Number one, it was free, number two, it was close to my house, and so I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ And I’ve loved it! It’s been wonderful for me,” Chagnon said.

Bone Builders is a free volunteer-led exercise program designed to prevent and (even reverse) the negative effects of osteoporosis. LeBlanc, an AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP volunteer with United Way of Northwest Vermont, helped launch the Bone Builders class at her church in 2018.

LeBlanc, a lifetime St. Albans resident, was involved in a health initiative of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church aimed at helping members become more physically active when a friend told her about Bone Builders.

“I had been diagnosed with osteopenia, which can be a precursor to osteoporosis,” LeBlanc recalled. “I thought, this is going to benefit me, it’s going to benefit the church, and it’s going to benefit the people in my community. So, I begged a friend to join me, and we started the Bone Builders class.”

Both Chagnon and LeBlanc say they have experienced major positive changes in their lives, both physical and social, since coming to Bone Builders regularly.

“People that are friends that I haven’t seen for a while, they say: ‘My God, you’re so much stronger than you were!’” says Chagnon. “I’m pretty sure I’d be in a wheelchair by now if I didn’t have Bone Builders. I wouldn’t want to have to give it up.”

LeBlanc also feels stronger and more confident because of Bone Builders. “My last test, my doctor was just so pleased because the osteopenia had gotten so much better. The program works,” she said.

Bone Builders not only makes people physically stronger, but it also strengthens social connections and decreases isolation that can increase as people age.

For Chagnon, life got lonelier when she stopped driving. She used to have a van and enjoyed going on adventures with friends. She also used to go out walking, which became more difficult due to physical limitations coupled with Vermont’s inclement weather.

“It’s been a great way to get out and see people. And people laugh! We laugh all the time at Bone Builders. The socialization piece is huge,” Chagnon said.

LeBlanc, who entered retirement during the pandemic, agrees with Chagnon: “We have the best group of people. I just feel like they’re all my friends.”

Bone Builders classes are held in various locations throughout Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle Counties. United Way recruits and trains volunteers and seeks out community partners willing to donate class space free of charge.

To find a full class schedule and/or sign up to be a volunteer instructor, visit unitedwaynwvt.org/bone-builders or contact Danielle Schwer at danielle@unitedwaynwvt.org or (802) 861-7821.


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