In orange, green and white T-shirts, 14 young athletes entered through the giant doors at Abundant Grace Community Church in Gainesville. Behind them was Zaivion Mason, tightly clutching the miniature Olympic torch made of plastic and escorted in his wheelchair by volunteers and community members.
The athletes represented Balance 180 Gymnastics & Sports Academy, a new nonprofit organization that focuses on integrating sports and physical activities into the lives of children and young adults with varying intellectual or physical disabilities.
On Aug. 9, Balance 180 hosted its first Young Athletes Program Culminating event in Alachua County to allow participants, like Mason, to show off their new skills and help raise awareness about disabilities and the Special Olympics.
“We wanted to bring this well-structured program to Gainesville to give children with disabilities an opportunity to enjoy sports, make new friends and give them a fun way to improve their physical, cognitive and social skills,” said Carsten Schmalfuss, M.D., president and a founder of Balance 180 and an assistant professor of medicine at the UF College of Medicine.
The Young Athletes Program is an innovative and adaptive sports program started by the Special Olympics for children with intellectual disabilities and their peers. The goal of the program is to introduce these children to sports and help them develop their motor, cognitive, social, adaptive and communications skills in an inclusive environment. The program has spread to 15 counties in Florida in the past three years.
Enrolling 16 athletes between ages 2 and 7 and more than 40 volunteers, many of whom come from colleges across UF and the Health Science Center, the first local Young Athletes Program is a success. Several UF gymnastics, soccer and volleyball athletes also participated and volunteered.
“Students really benefited from the hands-on experience and learned to adapt exercises to each child’s ability, as well as design the appropriate progressions,” said another Balance 180 founder Krista Vandenborne, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the department of physical therapy at the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “The kids loved working with the students whose passion was contagious.”
The founders of Balance 180 were encouraged and excited to see the community come together and change children’s lives for the better, Schmalfuss said.
“As educators at such a strong academic health center, we are able to bring an integrated approach to providing unique opportunities to people with disabilities,” Vandenborne said. “And Gainesville is a wonderful town to showcase the heart of what we do.”
The young athletes threw balls through hula-hoops, jumped between colorful rings, ran in a relay race and wriggled through crawl tunnels as parents, friends and community members cheered on.
“Zaivion loves it and he has been using his whole body. I don’t like him to be confined to his wheelchair,” said Zaivion’s mother Lashaunda Mason. “I’m overjoyed about this program.”
Photos by Maria Belen Farias