Two South of South fitness classes honored their leader as part of their annual holiday celebration.
“Being in a pool is as therapeutic for me as any medicine,” Carrolyn Minggia said Friday at Essington’s Clarion Hotel Conference Center. “Having great friends, though, has no healing equal.”
The 57-year-old lacked a watery haven that afternoon but bonded with 47 acquaintances from the Christian Street YMCA, 1724 Christian St., for their eighth annual holiday luncheon.
Though Minggia had hoped only to give them recognition for their roles in building her well-being, she received a surprise as they commended her tireless fight against a rare ailment and devotion to their vitality.
The Southwest Philly resident — formerly of 20th and Pemberton, and 23rd and Christian streets — has served as an arthritis aquatics instructor for the 98-year-old South of South facility for five years, strengthening a presence that also has included volunteer duties and time as a water aerobics facilitator. The guests consisted of members from her classes, dubbed The Sisters of the Water, who aside from breaking bread sealed their place in her heart by giving her a crystal plaque symbolic of the clarity of the water than binds them.
“I have a love for coordinating and really wanted to use that to give us another occasion for sharing,” Minggia, a 2012 South Philly Review Difference Maker who offers one-hour sessions Tuesdays and Thursdays, said before her unexpected accolade. “These are phenomenal people who give credence to my belief that we should treat others the way we would want for them to treat us.”
Such a philosophy, rooted in her deep relationship with God, has guided the gregarious figure her entire life but most intensely over the last 30 years. She struggles with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which one’s immune system counters its traditional role and damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and often paralyzing the afflicted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that 3,000 to 6,000 Americans develop it annually, meaning as many as two cases per 100,000 people.
“I’ve had to hold on to my spirit because it’s been a long, often rough road,” Minggia, who deals with permanent damage to her central nervous system, said within feet of Moses, the walking stick that has guided her gait since her diagnosis.
The beloved organizer infrequently called upon her aid during the five-hour celebration, as she confidently covered the distance separating the seven tables, dishing out an anecdote to almost every friend. She began developing the unions in ’05, three years after her malady had forced her into retirement, seemingly ending a productive professional identity that included 17 years as a City employee, the lion’s share with the Department of Human Services. Her recovery plan included pool therapy, an interesting proposition for the non-swimmer, but Minggia, who five years ago acquired certification from the Arthritis Foundation, accepted the recommendation and made the six-block trek from her then-residence to the YMCA to rejuvenate her body and soul.
“And I met these fantastic people,” she said with a wave of her arms. “We have such a strong connection and love each other for who we are. We all know we have limits, but there are so many different feelings once we’re in the water.”
Minggia, who welcomes as many as 30 students per gathering, immediately sought to repay her peers for their genial natures and talked with her superiors about honoring them with a luncheon. The tradition began with homemade delicacies they enjoyed in the gym, with placement in classrooms following. They left the confines three years ago for a Bala Cynwyd restaurant before Minggia found the present location last year.
“It’s an easy fit,” she said as her mates began their meals. “These events add another dimension to our lives, and I’m grateful to the Y for helping us to fill our companionship needs.”
While the attendees dined on steak, chicken, stuffed shells, mixed veggies, rice, salad and ice cream, they discussed their families, friendships and pool prowess as seasonal musical selections beckoned them to reach for the karaoke songbook.
“That’s new for this year,” Minggia said. “I hope they’re ready to give it their all.”
She had hoped to present a slide show of their time together, but matters fell through, though a prize giveaway brought on cheers as did calls for participants to hit the dance floor. Most of her festive friends came from her current class, whose members range in age from 43 to 96, with 10 attendees from the aerobics gang. Minggia had begun teaching the groups simultaneously but chose to concentrate on the former after six months because of health considerations. Regardless of duration together, she considers them constant companions and selected two of them to receive awards. Though the endowments endeared her to the pupils even more, they doubled Minggia’s delight when they presented the plaque.
“Oh my darling, oh my darling,” she offered as her opening, choosing the refrain from “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which she sings during sessions. “You hold such a special place in my heart, and a day like today provides a great reminder that no matter how horrendous our struggles may become, if we acknowledge the presence of God, we will find a way.”
Minggia, who credits her aquatic tests as mental and physical strength builders, then joined her irreplaceable confidants for rollicking dance numbers, including the “Electric Slide,” which allowed her to show her syndrome will always receive her resistance.
“Carrolyn is outstanding,” Christopher Fine, the aquatics group’s youngest member, said as he adjusted his Santa hat and flashed the smile that has made the special needs figure a popular presence.
The resident of the 1200 block of South Broad Street joined the class two years ago, desiring to have fun and to stay cool during the summer. His formal foray into disciplined aquatics has given Fine many joyful moments, and he yearns for more mornings and celebrations with his friends.
“Everything is beautiful there,” the joyous gentleman, one of a handful of men who provide The Sisters of the Water a bit of gender diversity, said. “I’m grateful for Carrolyn because she makes us feel great.”
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