An exercise program for kids with special needs

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

From the bars to the balance beam to the tumbling mats, each circuit in Kidnetic Energy's gymnastics class challenges students to test their skills and strength.

The hour-long class for children with special needs clearly provides a good workout - some of the adult volunteers who help run the program break a sweat by the end - but it's as much about fun as it is about fitness.

"It's not for therapy," said Holly Meyer, a lead teacher for the nonprofit organization, which draws children from across central Ohio to its gymnastics and dance classes. "It's more just for them to enjoy themselves and say, 'I can do anything anybody else can.' "

When Worthington resident Julie Mills founded Kidnetic Energy in 2007, one of her main goals was to offer children with special needs the same recreational opportunities as their typical peers.

Mills was inspired to create a nonprofit and launch specialized classes by her niece, who participates in a nonprofit sports and recreation program for children with special needs in San Antonio, Texas. Mills focused on gymnastics and dance after finding that classes weren't consistently being offered for children with disabilities.

"When I looked through the phone book and there was nothing there, and I called around and there was nothing specific, I thought that was rather unacceptable," said Mills. Along with running Kidnetic Energy, Mills works part time as an of counsel attorney for AlerStallings Law Firm in Dublin.

She gained the support of Buckeye Gymnastics owner David Holcomb, who offered up practice space at his gym in Powell.

The idea quickly took off and continues with help from a staff of more than 30 volunteers, most of whom are students in Ohio State University's physical therapy and occupational therapy programs or belong to service clubs at local high schools.

"It's just a wonderful collaborative effort and I am happy to have a facility that works and some time that I can give," Holcomb said. "It's the whole community coming together for these kids and families. It's awesome."

Students who participate inKidnetic Energy range in age and ability. Many of them have Down syndrome, autism or cerebral palsy.A medical release completed by a doctor is required, Mills said.

Along with lessons in teamwork, students learn basic skills such as following directions, waiting in line and taking turns, said Amanda Haddad, a lead teacher and pediatric physical therapist.

"What's special about our program is that we have that one-to-one with the volunteers," Haddad said, adding that volunteers are usually paired with the same child each class. "It's really hard a lot of times for kids with special needs to transition, so it's nice to keep things consistent."

Gymnastics follows a similar structure week to week. After a warm-up, students and their volunteers split off into three teams to complete circuits around the gym. During practice, teammates shout encouragement and give high fives while parents and siblings watch and often cheer from the sidelines.

At the end of class, everyone is rewarded with a favorite activity - jumping on the trampoline and into the foam "cheese pit."

Watching the students grow in their abilities and gain confidence is rewarding, said Gretchen Schaub, an Ohio State student and six-year volunteer for the program.

"When I first came here, it was just so cool to see the progress," Schaub said. "The kids started week one and couldn't do really basic things like follow directions or jump. … We have kids all over the spectrum, and to see them at week eight jumping and taking directions and doing all these amazing things, it was really just amazing to see."

There are social benefits, too, not just for the children but for their parents.

"We love it," said Sharon D'Alberto of Hilliard, whose 11-year-old daughter, Angelina, participates in gymnastics. "We love all the volunteers, the people, just the families. It's so good to be around and surrounded by families that are walking the same walk."

Angelina, who has Down syndrome, loves the class and looks forward to seeing her friends.

"She never ever says, 'I don't want to go,' " D'Alberto said. "With this it's, 'I'm ready.' "

Sudha Ragothaman of Dublin said gymnastics has become a positive reinforcement at home for her son, Ajeya, 10, who has autism.

"He is learning something, but he is so happy," Ragothaman said. "He's enjoying it."