Flex Appeal

by Liz Schick

Long before the current fitness craze, Sally Dye was motivating people

photoSally Dye, a physical therapist at Associates in Physical & Occupational Therapy since 1990, was named its executive director in 1997. The Williston-based nonprofit has five satellites in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties and a Community Fitness Center attached to the Williston facility.

Believe it or not, a Reader’s Digest article when she was in ninth grade inspired Sally Dye to become a physical therapist. “I was an avid runner,” she says, “and enjoyed encouraging people who were not natural-born runners to compete with themselves. When I read the article, it just clicked — science; helping people; medical — it was perfect.” Moreover, Dye adds, “I’m a rarity — I’m still doing it!”

Dye is executive director of Associates in Physical & Occupational Therapy, a Williston-based nonprofit with five satellites in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties and a Community Fitness Center attached to the Williston facility.

Dye admits, laughing, that being an executive director means wearing many hats besides that of a physical therapist. Although those hats sometimes include some not in the job description — such as office cleaner, wall painter and toilet unclogger — she still finds plenty of opportunity to practice physical therapy.

Having held the position for 10 years, Dye knows — and does — what it takes to run this organization launched 35 years ago by the University of Vermont physical therapy department. 

In 1972, the department’s leadership saw a need for physical therapy services to serve the greater Burlington community. “My understanding is that they would get calls from people looking for physical therapists, knowing there was a PT curriculum,” she says. 

Faculty members were very experienced working with children with disability, so they started treating children. “Nursing homes have historically had a bad time finding therapists, so a lot of people did geriatrics. Physician practices would call asking for therapy services in their communities. In recent years, there is a glut of PT providers, but back then that wasn’t the case, and there is still no one like us who does it all — pediatric, orthopedic, outpatient — and a lot of elderly clients come to see us.”

To serve the need, UVM created the Associates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and opened several offices to conveniently serve people. Later, the organization was spun off to run independent of the university. Today it is a free-standing entity that generates income through billing for services and memberships in its Community Fitness Center. 

The organization was well up and running by the time Dye, a Long Island native, moved to Vermont with her parents in 1982. “My father came to Vermont to take over a company going bankrupt,” she says. It was Food Science Laboratories, and he turned it around. He has since retired, she continues, adding, “He’s something else!”

photoRonni Allard (left), the receptionist at Associates in Physical Therapy, is also one of Sally Dye’s physical therapy patients. Dye is demonstrating the workings of the knee.

Following her ninth-grade inspiration, Dye  studied physical therapy at the University of Vermont. After graduating in 1986, she worked as a physical therapist at Porter Medical Center in Middlebury and in New York city for three years before returning to Vermont to be with her family during her mother’s illness. 

She joined Associates in Physical & Occupational Therapy in 1990 as a physical therapist in the orthopedics wing of the group. Seven years later she was named executive director.

Although the organization hasn’t been a part of the university for years, it retains close ties, says Dye. “Students come through our clinic on internships, and our bylaws stipulate that the chair and one other faculty member of the department of rehabilitation and movement science sit on our board of directors, but we receive no university or private funding of any kind.” 

photoIn December, Kathy Rowley was named manager of the Community Fitness Center. She is in her 10th year at the Associates, where she was a physical therapy aide in the pediatrics division.

As a nonprofit, the organization must use any monetary balance or dividends for charitable, educational or scientific purposes. This enables the Associates to maintain a sliding-scale fee structure for those in need, as well as to provide free services to the community. In addition, it makes donations to the physical therapy research fund and other educational funds at the university.

Pediatric and adult outpatient services are provided at six sites: Williston, Burlington (at the Ethan Allen Shopping Center), Essex Junction, Hinesburg, Shelburne and South Hero.

Dye oversees about 25 employees. Staffers include physical and occupational therapists, who service the approximately 3,000 patients the organization treats each year; support staff; fitness staff; and a part-time speech therapist.

The therapy staff includes Dye. “Orthopedics is my thing,” she says. “I would never give up my ability to help people regain their health.” She believes in encouraging patients to take control, regardless of their diagnoses or problems. She mentions a standing joke she has with her patients. “I hope I never see you again, but if I do, it had better be for a different problem.” 

“When someone wants us to fix this problem for them,” she says, “we smile and tell them that we’re not going to fix it, but we are going to teach them how to take care of it.”

It’s an approach to what Dye and her staff call “lifelong fitness.” Therapists work to relieve symptoms of a particular diagnosis, but they are at the same time dedicated to helping their patients move beyond that, teaching them how to manage their lives so the problem won’t return. As an example, says Dye, “We show clients with carpal tunnel syndrome how they can adapt their workstations, correct their posture and what muscles to strengthen so it won’t return.” 

To effectively promote lifelong fitness, two years ago, the organization opened a 15,000-square-foot headquarters in Williston, which includes not only offices, but also a state-of-the-art fitness center, replete with a warm-water pool for physical therapy patients and those suffering from arthritis. 

To encourage patients to continue with regular exercise, each receives a free 18-visit pass to the Community Fitness Center. Once they experience the benefits accrued from ongoing exercise, many sign up for their own memberships. 

Since physical therapists at the Community Fitness Center are also on the staff of the Associates, anyone with physical limitations who joins the fitness center can consult with the PT staff to build a fitness plan that will be beneficial and effective. 

Dye’s personal fitness regimen consists of being outdoors, on old logging trails through the woods at the back of her house in Williston. She might be alone or with her two bichons frises, Comet and Sam, or accompanied by her children: Katie, 14; James, 13; and Hender, 8. 

“I love to hike and snowshoe, kayak and garden,” she says, laughing. “It’s ironic, but I’ve never been a fitness-center type of person, although I’ve always wanted to open one because I know many people need to have that structure or they won’t exercise. That’s why I love the Associates’ Community Fitness Center.”

Dye is taking two self-help classes at Champlain Valley Union High School’s adult access program. “To balance the busyness of work and raising three kids, I signed up for a rug-hooking class as relaxation therapy,” she says. “I also take a parenting class that’s geared to raising teens, because, as a single parent, I want to be sure I stay connected with my children.”

In December, she named Kathy Rowley manager of the Community Fitness Center. Rowley is in her 10th year at the Associates, where she was a physical therapy aide in the pediatrics division. A bit of a switch in approach was needed by Rowley for the transition. 

“There is a big difference working on the gym side of the business,” Dye says.” People coming for PT are hurt. On this side, people are looking to get healthier, so there is a difference in attitude, which is really nice.”

Rowley enjoys working with Dye because, she says, “We have a good understanding of each other — where we are coming from and what our goals are for the organization. We both share a vision for the Fitness Center — to help people stay fit for life.”

Staying fit can take many paths. For example, an arthritis self-help program was begun. It is run by two former physical therapy patients who were introduced to the Community Fitness Center with their 18-session passes, and now volunteer to run this collaborative program. 

Marilyn Van Houten, age 69, and Shirley Murray, age 79, are program co-leaders whom Dye recruited to be trained by the Arthritis Foundation. 

 “After the first session, we started the Fourth Thursday Group,” says Van Houten, “so those who complete the course can continue to participate by having lunch and sharing information.” 

She adds, “You couldn’t ask for a better person than Sally to run a business like this. She’s so enthusiastic and has great ideas, but she listens and cooperates with your ideas and needs.”

Dedicated volunteers aren’t the only ones who praise Dye and the Associates’ programs. 

Alison Dennison went to the Hinesburg facility to be evaluated for back pain. Dye traveled from Williston to see her and gave her a thorough investigative appointment at the beginning. Then she taught her how to do therapeutic exercises on her own.  

“Sally is excellent,” Dennison says. “She was very thorough and explained things very clearly. She knows her stuff and coordinated extremely well with my primary care physician.” 

Dennison received 10 weeks of physical therapy and exercises to do on her own, and she now drives to Williston two days a week to use the Community Fitness Center’s warm-water pool. “I belong to a health club in South Burlington,” she says, “but this is so much nicer, because the pool is warm and makes my pain much more manageable.” 

She says she also likes the Williston gym because it’s so open, clean and airy, with the latest equipment. When she is finished using her 18-visit pass, she is seriously considering joining the Community Fitness Center on her own.

She might also say, “Thanks, Reader’s Digest.” •