Pictured above is Mary Benn’s Escape Day Spa on Duncan Street in Gadsden. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
Gadsden is known for its riverfront views, rich history and charming downtown area, but some might not be aware that the city also holds an impressive aggregate of massage therapists.
Over a dozen massage therapy businesses operate in Gadsden, including Escape Day Spa (pictured at right), Serenity with Sande, Touched by Grace, Gadsden Massage Studio and The Healing Tree. Licensed massage therapists provide service throughout the area.
Many of these LMTs trained at Gadsden State Community College under Dr. Lance Gilliland, Anita Mathis or Laura Nelson, each beloved by their former students. The GSCC massage therapy program began in 2004 and ended in 2022, but not before earning a Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation, the only school in the state of Alabama to have achieved this distinction.
“I graduated from the therapeutic massage program at Gadsden State in 2007,” said LMT Amanda Blackwell, who practices at McClellan Family Chiropractic in Rainbow City. “Since graduation and passing my massage therapy boards I have successfully owned and operated my practice for 15 years.”
Blackwell is far from the only local success story. In fact, the Gadsden area boasts multiple generations of talented therapists.
LMT Sande Cox of Find Serenity with Sande is a second-generation massage therapist, and she said her 17-year-old daughter hopes to follow in her footsteps.
“With the addition of my daughter, this would be three generations of massage therapists and a legacy of health and wellness,” Cox said.
A 2022 GSCC alumna, Corina Bloodworth is a local LMT practicing in Albertville at her business called Missing Peace Massage Therapy. After working as a physical therapist assistant for several years, Bloodworth decided to earn her massage therapy license.
“I wanted to go back to school because with physical therapy, of course, there’s so many limitations to clients’ needs and things that you cannot do due to time,” Bloodworth said. “So they kind of lack quality of care; they get more quantity. My main reason for getting into the field is to bring more quality of care to the clients.”
Massage therapists like Blackwell and Cox have been serving the community for decades. Now, younger LMTs like Bloodworth are ready to carry on that legacy.
One loyal client is Dee Pruett, a Gadsden State faculty member and long-time client of its student massage clinics. Pruett said Bloodworth, Mary Benn of Escape Day Spa and others have worked on her over the years. According to Pruett, Benn was instrumental in the college program’s 2004 initialization, as well as improving her own health.
Attending the once-weekly clinics at a faculty discount was life-changing for Pruett at a time when she was working two jobs and carrying a lot of stress.
“The thing is, I guess when somebody works on you and cares about you and helps you, you do become close and become friends,” Pruett said, adding that she keeps up with both her current and former massage therapists. “I believe there’s healing in touch.”
Pruett also recounted the lasting usefulness of a reflexology class she took under Benn and the friendship it sparked.
“That’s where we met, and then she has become a client, but mostly, we’re friends,” Benn said.
Benn, who was among the first teachers in the massage therapy program in 2004, has owned Escape Day Spa since 1999.
“I just like helping people,” Benn said. “What I really love is helping people to be aware of how they can help themselves. Because I like to make them feel good, but most people, myself included, we have things that we need to do to be healthy: drinking more water, stretching, exercise, eating certain foods, eating a good diet. I really like encouraging people to learn about being healthier.”
Gilliland returned to Gadsden State in 2019 after several years of teaching elsewhere. Consistently involved in his field, Gilliland was elected to the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy a few years after he first started at the college.
“I served there for something like 11 years, at the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy,” he said. “I was the vice chair for probably between nine and 10 of those years, and the last year or so, I was the chair.”
Gilliland also served as the Alabama delegate to the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards, meaning he helped write FSMTB’s standardized national massage therapy certification test.
“We’d get to see massage therapy on the national level, which was glorious because you get to see a whole lot of stuff that’s really going on,” Gilliland said.
Gilliland called massage therapy a “wonderful field,” and while he said he “would like to see it go on (at Gadsden State),” he understands and looks fondly on his time teaching there.
“We ended up with the COMTA accreditation, which is the certification you receive for massage therapy,” Gilliland said. “We are the only school in the state of Alabama that has it. There are few people that have this thing. We worked to get it, and I’m glad that we were able to earn it.”
His last semester saw six students graduate in massage therapy.
“They’re a good bunch of kids, and I liked them because every once in a while, they’d bring in goodies,” Gilliland said. “I’d run by some mornings and pick up fudge or pecans or something like that and bring them to the class. Another girl would bring biscuits, so it was fun for that. It kind of became a little family.”
Several of those students have now earned their licenses and are ready to join the ranks of LMTs in the area, according to Gilliland.
“I really enjoyed the job getting to know all of the students and whatnot and to see them flourish as massage therapists,” he said. “I mean we’ve got some that have been out there 10, 12 years now that are still massage therapists and still in the area. I really like that, of course.”
Benn attested that the city has “been good to [her]” and other massage therapists.
“Gadsden’s a great place,” she said.