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Contributed by Bethany Friedrich, Special Needs Coordinator
As the Special Needs Coordinator for Tumbl Trak, I have the wonderful opportunity to speak with gyms that offer adaptive or inclusive gymnastics programming, or even more often, gyms who are interested in starting a program for kids with special needs but don’t know where to begin. Most have questions about logistics; who will coach the program? How do we train volunteers? What time should the class be offered? Should the gym be empty? Can I ...
The best answers to these questions come from hearing from people who have successfully tackled these challenges.
This past month I spoke with Julie Foster at Balance 180 Gymnastics and Sports Academy, a non-profit gym in Gainesville, Florida. Just minutes into our conversation I knew this was a special program that needed to be shared with our gymnastics community, especially for those interested in starting their own adaptive classes.
Julie was lovely to speak to. She was well-spoken, passionate, kind, and a huge advocate for kids of all abilities having the chance to participate in sports and realize their unique potential. But Julie is not the only promoter of a new model of gymnastics; this is the philosophy of everyone at Balance 180. The entire team is committed to serving the whole child by building self-esteem, confidence and offering a nurturing environment where children of all abilities can succeed alongside one another.
Balance 180 Gymnastics and Sports Academy began in 2012 when they launched their very first program, the Special Olympics Young Athletes Program with 14 children. This is a great place to start, as it is a feeder program for Special Olympics and has it’s own curriculum and training model in place. By 2013, they were ready to start their recreational and adaptive gymnastics programs with limited equipment and limited access to the gym. Each year they have continued to grow and expand their space/programming. Today they are able to offer recreational, competitive, and adaptive classes to over 500 athletes.
The Special Olympics Young Athletes Program is for 2-7 year olds with physical and/or intellectual disabilities who are interested in joining Special Olympics when they are old enough. The curriculum is created by Special Olympics and is all-encompassing with a focus on sports and teaching basic movement skills, such as, running, jumping, and kicking a ball. In addition, they always make time for singing, dancing, cheering and games.
At Balance 180 they also offer inclusion opportunities and an Adaptive Gymnastics program. The Adaptive program is offered to 2-14 year olds and is more focused on specific gymnastics skills than the Special Olympic Young Athletes Program. The Adaptive Gymnastics program follows a curriculum unique to Balance 180 where children learn foundational skills on the vault, bars, beam, and floor, while still taking plenty of time to dance, cheer, and play! The Adaptive Gymnastics Program is are offered 1x/week on Saturdays to best accommodate coaches, volunteers and participants.
These programs require support from the entire team; from the Board of Directors to the volunteers and interns. One of the many things that makes Balance 180 so exceptional and effective is the experienced and knowledgeable board of Senior Advisors who all come from diverse, but relevant professional disciplines (cardiology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, special education, recreation, competitive gymnastics, public health, physiology, kinesiology, etc.) Most of the coaching staff, volunteer coordinators, volunteers, and interns are all pursuing similar areas of study from the local university (University of Florida, GO GATORS!). The Senior Advisors make it their mission to mentor and harvest this young energy by leading trainings where they share their experience, discuss different strategies and review likely scenarios. They also set-aside time every day for pre-session meetings/prepping and post-session debriefing.
It is this dedication that makes it possible to train 100-120 volunteers every semester from the UF so that children with special needs can have a 1:1 or sometimes even 2:1 buddy. The buddy acts as the child’s support during their session and helps provide the encouraging culture that Balance 180 prides itself on. In addition, the buddies help the adaptive and recreational coaches ensure their student is meeting the individual goals created specifically for each student. This is not a one size fits all program, but is instead extremely tailored to each individual athlete. Even volunteers are thoughtfully paired with athletes that they mesh best with, allowing greater opportunity for success and a positive experience for all involved.
If you are interested in learning more about their inspiring program model please visit their website at www.balance180.org or find them on Facebook where you too may be impressed by the way they lift up and honor their staff and athletes.