Innovative program gives every kid a shot at gymnastics

Emma Manchester tests the balance beam with her dad Jason Manchester at Bluewater Gymnastics.

On this team, scores aren’t kept or times recorded.

But there’s real joy in the air, the kind that comes from doing the best you can with what you’ve got.

For the past 10 years a unique partnership between Pathways Health Centre for Children and Bluewater Gymnastics has allowed kids with special needs to run, tumble, bounce and play.

“They are learning gymnastics, but at their own level of ability. And it’s all structured so they can have success at it,” said Amy Spadafora, a recreational therapist at Pathways.

On this Monday night, a dozen children aged 6 to 11 attempt the balance beam and bars and trampoline. Laminated photos offer visual instructions at each exercise, and a squad of coaches is ready with hands-on help.

The program has grown to 90 children in three groups who face every mental and physical challenge imaginable.

“A lot of our families go, ‘Oh, no, we couldn’t do gymnastics. My child has CP (cerebral palsy) or is using a walker, so that’s not a possibility.’ And then they come and they realize, hey, there are opportunities,” Spadafora said.

Bluewater recreational coach Niki Nauta is credited with growing the program and making it thrive.

“The kids are happy and they try so hard,” she said. “You can see they’re having fun. I call this group my Monday high.”

(For more photos from this program, go to the “photos” section of our website and open Vol. 1, issue 10.)

– George Mathewson