Three decades ago in 1988, Ned Norton was set on his dream of becoming a strength coach in the NFL.
The hulking powerlifter began bodybuilding in his teens and had been training athletes, weightlifters, wrestlers and Olympic hopefuls in upstate New York.
During a training session with one of his clients at a local gym, a buddy of his told him about a 22-year-old man who had been struggling since falling out of a tree and becoming paralyzed, and he asked Norton if he would consider working with him.
“That’s how it started,” Norton, 61, tells PEOPLE of when his focus began to shift to helping people with disabilities. “He came in, he loved it and I trained him for free at the gym. The guy was rolling. Then he went back to rehab at the hospital and started bringing other people. And the first year I had about six people, all with spinal cord injuries.”
From there, more and more people with physical challenges sought out Norton for his training and guidance, and soon he moved from the local gym to leasing out his own space for them — and his nonprofit, Warriors on Wheels, was born.
“I never realized how many people were in that position that could benefit from it. They weren’t paying me, and I really enjoyed it,” says Norton, a father of three. “From there I decided to go out on my own. I rented space from the gym and after a while we got so many people that I ended up getting our own space in an abandoned area in public housing.”
In the 32 years since then, Norton has helped to train hundreds of people with disabilities, and the challenges the members face range from cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, autism, spina bifida, traumatic brain injury, stroke and other conditions.
For those who can, Norton only asks for $10 a month for a membership. If someone can’t pay? They are still free to use the gym’s services, no questions asked.
“If they have it, fine. If not? Who cares?” Norton says. “Many of them are in a position where they are on Social Security Disability Income, and that’s not a lot of money.”
Because the gym doesn’t have a steady stream of revenue, the nonprofit largely depends on donations. Norton regularly applies for grants, and he set up a PayPal account for donations on the Warriors on Wheels website.
“I’ve never known how I’ve kept things going all these years, year-to-year I go out and I raise grant money and write grants, which of course I never did before,” he says. “So that was a learning experience. And I rely on my friends and strictly a grassroots operation — but we’re still rolling.”
Many of the gym’s members are young people who have suffered a life-changing accident, and much of Norton’s work with them involves slowly getting their independence back.
“I know what we need to do is to increase range of motion, get stronger, get independent. It’s that simple,” he says. “Especially for young people. They’ve usually had a motorcycle accident or a car accident, and they’re in their 20s, they still got a long life to go. They have to shift gears, go back to college, or whatever they need to do, to get back on in life.”
While members may seek out Warriors on Wheels for its physical training, for Norton, he wants to give them a safe and welcoming place to rebuild their confidence as well.
“Ninety percent of it is focused on the mind,” he says. “Can you imagine, one day you’re active and you’re doing all kinds of stuff and the next day you’re wheeling around? I mean, where do you get the confidence to leave the house after such a drastic change?”
“They amaze me,” Norton continues. “Every one of them amazes me.”