SEBRING - A little over two years ago, Pauline Edwards suffered a stroke, which forced her to use a walker and left her with a medical condition characterized by uncontrollable crying.
In October, she decided to pay a visit to the Sebring office of the Handicapped Americans Love of Life Organization Inc., or H.A.L.L.0., for some post-rehabilitation exercises.
The compact office behind Highlands Regional Medical Center has nine types of exercise tables that do passive movements when people use them, ideal for those with limited mobility.
Carole Franzel remembers how Edwards would shuffle on her walker, crying as she moved from table to table with the help of her husband, Bill.
That was three months ago.
Now, she can move with the help of her cane in the house and her goal is to get rid of her walker altogether. What's more, Edwards does not break down in tears like before, and her husband can drop her off for a short respite if he wants, Franzel, the group's community outreach coordinator, added.
"The results are absolutely wonderful," Edwards said. "I went to other therapies. It's the most that has worked for me. It's easy on your body. The machines do all the work."
Stories like these keep H.A.L.L.O. founder Deanne Pieretti, an amputee herself who found no local support systems for the disabled almost 30 years ago, going and dreaming of growth.
Pieretti is a photographer who was a few months away from opening her own studio in Philadelphia until a tumor forced doctors to amputate one leg at the hip in 1984.
It was a life-changing experience, which brought her to Florida. When she realized there was no support groups for people with disabilities in Highlands County, she started H.A.L.L.O. 27 years ago.
The center is not a gym but a post-rehab program, Pieretti said.
Her hope is to expand the facility, and the group has launched its first capital funds fundraiser for the year. H.A.L.L.O. also hosts four support groups.
Between now and Feb. 7, Highlands County residents can "vote" for one of 10 community leaders, and the person with the least "votes" gets to kiss a pig.
The votes are donations that people can drop off in collection boxes, which Pieretti and Franzel refer to as "voting stations."
Those who have volunteered as the "10 most wanted in Highlands County" are the following: Sebring Mayor George Hensley, Sebring Fire Chief Brad Batz, Sheriff Susan Benton, Highlands County Commissioner Don Elwell, Lake Placid Mayor John Holbrook, Highlands Independent Bank CEO and President John Shoop, attorney William Fletcher, Highlands Independent Bank Avon Park branch manager Nicky Dilday, Edward Jones advisor Alan J. Holmes and Sebring Police Chief Tom Dettman.
Collection boxes are set up at the following stations: Wells Motor Co., The Hotel Jacaranda, Homer's Smorgasbord, the office of the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce on U.S. 27, Jimmy's Greek American Grill, Frames & Images, Coz's Sports Bar & Bowl, and Interlake Boulevard Café.
The fundraiser will culminate at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Highlands County Fairgrounds in the fair arena where the winner of the pig-kissing contest will be announced and the loser get to plant a kiss on Tommy the Piggy.
While the exercise tables help people with limited mobility, they also help tone muscles in people with regular movements, Pieretti said, and all age groups are welcome.
There are cardio machines present along with the passive exercise tables. It takes roughly 10 minutes to work out on one table.
Clients pay a nominal fee: $4 a visit and $35 for 10 visits.
The facility is located at 112 Medical Center Ave., Sebring, and hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Pieretti's eventual goal is to set up a senior one-stop center, where people can exercise, eat and even mail their letters.
The cost to build and open one center is $2 million but she remains optimistic.
"It's a number and we are going to reach it," she smiled.