WATERVILLE — Ryan Jabar stood in the boxing ring at O’Leary’s Fitness on College Avenue. He’d put his crutches aside and Brian McGovern, an aide from Families Matters, held on to the back of his shirt, helping him stay upright and steady.

Jabar, 27, swung at Mike Leary with his black boxing gloves. After he hit Leary’s shoulders and arms for a few rounds, Leary fell to the floor of the ring.

The surrounding group, about 22 people who come to the gymnasium through the Waterville branch of Families Matter, cheered and counted to 10 as Leary tried to grab the rope around the ring. In the end, Jabar was declared the winner.

Families Matter, a nonprofit organization that provides services, support and education to special-needs adults and their families, began taking clients to the gym about four months ago. Boxing has helped them improve their balance, coordination and self-confidence, said Debra Wells, the assistant director of the Waterville branch. The program might even increase number of times the group visits to twice a week.

“After the first time we came, they actually called my supervisor … and said, ‘We wanna go all the time!'” Wells said.

Jabar, who lives in Waterville, said he never would have thought that he’d like boxing. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth and wears leg braces.

“I really enjoy it,” he said. “It’s improved my walking.”

The workout has also given him more confidence.

“I feel great. I feel like I’m a new man,” he said.

Wells said she can see major improvements in the group that’s been going to the boxing gym every week. The boxing students don’t punch each other; instead, they spar with Leary or James Wells, Debra’s son, who’s training to be a boxer and volunteers with the group.

Wells has known Leary for 15 years and knew he was opening a gym, and thought it might be a good idea. Families Matter pays a discounted rate of $5 per person to use the gym with Leary. He runs through stretching and training circuits with them and sets up activities with the help of about seven Families Matter staff members.

Families Matter client Amanda Stevens, 33, said she’s grateful to Leary and James Wells for helping the group exercise. Stevens also participates in the winter and summer Special Olympics.

“It’s good that we get a chance to box … because it motivates us,” she said. “Mike and James are good mentors.”

Stevens, who lives in Oakland, has had seizures from a young age. She said since she started to box every week, the seizures have been easier to manage.

“(Boxing) will keep my mind focused and not stressed out,” she said.

As everyone goes through the circuits, practicing coordination and balance, swinging at punching bags, throwing a medicine ball around the ring, the gym is full of chatter, laughter and encouragement.

“(O’Leary’s) made a real difference in their lives,” Debra Wells said. Clients from the Waterville branch and the two Skowhegan branches of Families Matter go to the gym, and the other two branches — in Hallowell and Farmingdale — are planning to go, too.

Leary opened the gym Jan. 4 after working for years at the Buker Community Center in Augusta as a boxing and fitness instructor. Before that, he owned gyms in Waterville and Fairfield.

Leary was a boxer for a brief time when he was young, he said, but it was cut short when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its nerves. For six months he was fully paralyzed and couldn’t even speak.

“It mimics MS (multiple sclerosis), but it reverses itself,” Leary said. Over a period of three years, he relearned how to do everything he had once done — talk, walk, run.

Since he couldn’t compete as a boxer, he started to teach.

“I want to show the general public the good side of boxing,” he said. He said his gym is open to everybody, and that he means everybody.

“If you’re gonna be a public service and open a public gym, you should open it up to anybody,” he said. Leary does circuit training workouts with people of all different fitness levels, ranging from 8 years old to 72.

His interest in partnering with the special needs community started because he has relatives and friends who have special needs. He was working with one of his friends’ sons, he said, who has a spinal disorder, and saw him improve greatly with the boxing regimen.

“I started to realize that there’s some benefit here, in my opinion,” he said.

With this group, he, like Wells, has seen great improvements with things such as balance.

“To be able to come in here and let out frustration — like I said, it seems to be working,” Leary said.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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