Students helping Sisters improve their strength, balance

Campus & Community Student Features

April 19, 2021

By Mike Killeen

Five College of Saint Benedict students are sailing through an internship opportunity.

It isn’t an internship on the high seas. But it is an internship where you can wear tennis shoes and workout clothes to the “office” each work day.

The five – juniors Bailey Becker, Kateri Fischer, Brittany Glad and Anna Nelson and sophomore Audrey Steinhagen – are interns in the Stay Active and Independent for Life (SAIL) Program, which is an evidence-based strength, balance and fitness program for adults ages 65 and older.

Working with the Sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery three times a week during spring semester, the students lead the Sisters in performing exercises that improve strength, balance and fitness to help them stay active and reduce their chances of falling.

“I know that being as healthy as I am at age 90 is a great gift and one I don’t want to take for granted,” said Sister Lois Wedl, OSB. “I know that exercise is an important part of maintaining my health and love of life that I enjoy so completely.”

“I would definitely recommend it to other potential participants,” said Sister Mary Rachel Kuebelbeck, OSB.

It’s been a two-way street.

“I can’t say enough good things about this program and all that I’ve learned so far instructing the SAIL class,” said Becker, an integrative science/pre-occupational major from Sauk Rapids, Minnesota.

“The program is a great educational opportunity to receive hands-on experience,” said Nelson, a psychology/pre-occupational therapy major from Rogers, Minnesota.

“My favorite part of this experience has been seeing the smiles on the sisters’ faces when we start class,” said Glad, a junior psychology/pre- occupational therapy major from Maple Grove, Minnesota. “They are always super excited to see us and are always giving us waves and thumbs-up.”

The beginnings ...

It’s an opportunity that came together fairly quickly and started by coincidence, according to Don Fischer, professor of exercise and health science and chair of the department at CSB and Saint John’s University.

Fischer’s father has been a long-time volunteer at the Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person volunteer opportunities, Fischer called the Center to find out how his father might be able to volunteer.

“I got the chance to talk to Paula Woischke, who at the time was in charge of a lot of the programming there. Paula was in charge of the SAIL program, and she knew I was out here in exercise science, and so it just kind of started as a conversation,” Fischer said.

“Paula mentioned that a number of the Sisters had been going to the St. Joseph Church Gathering Space (in St. Joseph, Minnesota), with Paula leading the classes there. The SAIL program is normally done (through) in-person classes. With the pandemic, that was not possible,” Fischer said.

So Fischer contacted the Monastery and Information Technology Services at CSB/SJU to see if two locations could be set up to conduct the classes – one area for the students to lead the exercises, and another for the Sisters to do them.

“Over the course of several weeks (during fall semester), everything just started to fall into place,” Fischer said.

Now, he had to find students interested in conducting the course.

“I advise many of these pre-professional health students, and I asked if they were interested in an opportunity to do something with the Sisters. During the pandemic, there were no real volunteer opportunities in-person,” Fischer said. “With the pre-professional health programs, the graduate schools want to see experience working with diverse populations, and certainly older adults fall into that group.

“The fact that the program is really intended to be a fall prevention program for older adults ties in nicely with the healthcare aspect as well. As I was having these conversations, five students just kind of came to the front and said we’d love to do this.”

“When Don brought up this opportunity, I thought it would be a fun, educational experience with the Sisters,” Nelson said. “I immediately said yes to the opportunity and knew the educational benefits along with the connections made with the Sisters would be rewarding.”

Learning the program

The students began virtual training during the first week of January, learning the SAIL program over the span of 12 hours.

“Paula (Woischke), the instructor, had us practice the exercises with her so that we knew the correct form and how to describe the exercises to the Sisters,” Becker said. “It was really helpful having her there watching us so that she could critique us right away and give us some pointers on the do’s and don’ts of leading class.

“Most of her tips were geared toward how we were going to teach virtually, being that it’s much harder to describe the exercises without being there to correct their form in person. We really have to verbalize our cues to the Sisters, which can be challenging at times to find the right words,” Becker added.

“All exercise demonstrators were consistently concise in describing and demonstrating each exercise, including which portion of the body would be strengthened,” Kuebelbeck said. “(The demonstrators) were well prepared and paced precisely how much time each exercise needed to be done in order to prime the body for the exercises that would be followed.” 

Each virtual session lasts an hour and does involve some planning, said Steinhagen, an exercise and health science major from Young America, Minnesota.

“Each class includes an education piece in which we incorporate some fact about health, nutrition, exercise or well-being,” Steinhagen said. “These education pieces do take a slight amount of planning, as we don't want to repeat information and try to keep it relatable and interesting.

“Otherwise, a few sections of the class we cannot change as it must strictly follow the SAIL curriculum, but we try our best put our own spin on the aerobics and warm up sections to keep it fun and interesting,” Steinhagen added.

The sessions are set up to be two-way.

“We can see all the Sisters throughout the class. This means we are able to see if they are doing the movements correctly or if someone seems to be struggling,” said Kateri Fischer, a junior exercise and health science major from St. Joseph, Minnesota, who is Don Fischer’s daughter.

“We also make sure to mention throughout the class that they should go at a pace that is comfortable to them. This allows them to not over-push themselves. They have a microphone set up near the front of the class in case someone needs to ask a question or has a comment.”

Program continues through end of the semester

The program was initially set to end after eight weeks, but the feedback from the Sisters and the students was so positive that everyone agreed to continue the program through the end of the spring semester.

“The CSB students we are blessed to have as mentors and program leaders are competent, committed affirming women.  Without leaders of this caliber, I may not have given myself the permission to commit to a second period of eight weeks for exercise,” Wedl said.

“Seeing results after just a few weeks was a major benefit of my being in this program,” Wedl added, noting that her balance “has improved greatly.”

It’s also been an opportunity for the students to conduct an internship during the pandemic, when many in-person internships came to a halt.

“The program is a great educational opportunity to receive hands on experience,” Nelson said. “Internships for occupational therapy and physical therapy are generally hard to find due to the educational experience needed. I have been very grateful to receive this internship opportunity. The Sisters always put a smile on my face and I love to see their improvements each week.”

“I think what is extremely beneficial about (the program) is the fact that it was able to be facilitated during COVID-19 times. Many college students didn't have an opportunity to accomplish internships during the past year, but fortunately enough we have been able to. I cannot thank Don Fischer, the leader of this program and my adviser, enough for all of his hard work to give us all of these wonderful opportunities.”

“This program is a wonderful experience for the Sisters to get out and to get active, plus it is an amazing way for us and the Sisters to stay connected during the pandemic,” Kateri Fischer said.

“Not only is it related to my future career, but I get to do something that is positively influencing my community,” Becker said. “Working with the Sisters has been so enjoyable, and I hope that other students will get the opportunity to work with them as well.”  

“It has helped me with people skills and communication skills with those of a different generation than me,” Glad said. “I have learned a lot from the Sisters’ input – more so than I thought I would. Overall, this whole entire experience has been my favorite part of the semester.”  

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Audrey Steinhagen, Kateri Fischer, Brittany Glad and Bailey Becker


Anna Nelson

Audrey Steinhagen

Don Fischer