By KALEY CONNER

kconner@dailynews.net

Haley Nixon set out a young age to do what she loves. Fitness is her passion, she said, and she knew she wanted to make a career of helping others become more active and healthy.

Now in her seventh year employed at Hays Recreation Center, 1105 Canterbury, Nixon's career journey took an unexpected turn. She discovered she also has a passion for the other side of recreational programming -- leisure activities.

"It totally 180-ed," Nixon said of her career ambitions. "Still, fitness is my passion ... it's like my hobby-job, where I can still love it, but it's not everything I do."

She now works as a full-time program director at HRC, helping oversee activities for adults and individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Nixon teaches group fitness classes each week, but also is tasked with planning social and entertaining activities. She particularly has enjoyed the Special Pops program, which serves those with disabilities.

Events include a Monday walking group, a new group fitness class, movie nights, dances and bowling. She recently took a group to see the musical "Shrek" in Salina and organized a country-themed hoedown.

What she enjoys most is getting the opportunity to interact with the individuals in that population, she said. She also has made some new friends, occasionally taking one of the class members for a birthday treat.

"It opened my eyes to see how fun and exciting it is to work with people who are disabled, because they have such a different outlook on life," Nixon said. "They enjoy things a lot more than other people. I feel like they don't take anything for granted.

"They live in the moment, so it's fun to be around them."

She works closely with staff at Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas and other caregivers to coordinate the programs.

HRC also hosts an annual fundraiser, Dash for Disabilities, to raise money to supplement costs for the program.

The goal is to keep the recreational activities as affordable as possible so individuals are not deterred by financial limitations, she said.

Nixon, a native of Hays and a 2009 graduate of Hays High School, managed to earn a bachelor's degree from Fort Hays State University in 3.5 years.

"I was just ready to be in and out, and just be able to do what I love," she said.

She had internships and part-time employment with HRC through college, and knew she wanted to stay in Hays. When the full-time spot became available, Nixon jumped at the chance to be mentored by other program directors at HRC.

"I'm just really grateful," she said. "We live in a community with only 10 recreation directors, and this is where I wanted to stay, so I feel very grateful that I got a job in what I went to school for and what I love to do."