By FRED KRONER
Paige Davis is an adaptable soon-to-be 5-year-old.
She could be the poster child for the adage, “any port in a storm.”
Davis has enjoyed her time in gymnastics, especially on the balance beam.
“She loves to turn anything into a balance beam, like curbs, lines in the parking lot, or folded up blankets,” said Mahomet’s Mandy Davis, Paige’s mother.
Paige Davis participates in a gymnastics program at Champaign Gymnastics Academy, on Mattis Ave.
“Coach Ashley (Lebeau) and CGA have been great,” Mandy Davis said. “They treat Paige like any other kid.”
Paige Davis is not like many of the individuals who train at the facility, located in the Country Fair Shopping Center.
She has Down Syndrome.
The Middletown Prairie pre-schooler is “behind her peers in speech and with her fine and gross motor skills,” Mandy Davis said.
At school, “she gets extra therapies like speech, occupational and physical therapy,” her mom added.
When the weather cooperates, the Davis’ would go to the playground and work on Paige’s motor skills.
“Last fall we decided to sign up for gymnastics since we weren’t going to the park as much after it got cold out,” Mandy Davis said.
Friends had recommended CGA, and Mandy Davis made the contact, hoping to get her daughter enrolled in a toddler child-parent class that is advertised for 2-3 year-olds.
“I called to ask if she could still take the class even though (at age 4) she was older than the recommended age, but developmentally she was in that range,” Mandy Davis said. “I was prepared to have to convince them to let Paige enroll in the class, but Coach Ashley said it was no problem and gave us all the details of the class.
“She made a great first impression on me.”
Working with students such as Paige Davis is part of Champaign Gymnastics Academy’s underlying mission.
“At our core, CGA is a gym that believes gymnastics is a sport for anyone and we strive to create a program that welcomes both children and adults of all ages and levels, and provides an opportunity to develop a love for the sport while feeling accepted and proud of themselves,” Lebeau said. “The first summer we were open (2013), we began working with Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation (CUSR) to offer their summer camp participants an opportunity to participate in the sport of gymnastics.
“Five years ago, we spearheaded the first Special Olympics Gymnastics Program in the area.”
Opportunities gradually were expanded until last summer an official inclusion program was mentioned in the CGA literature.
“Over the years we have developed a reputation as a gym that will work with children with special needs whether that meant making an exception to an age/skill group when signing a child up, scheduling a second coach on a class or modifying the class structure to allow that child to be a successful participant,” Lebeau said. “We have essentially provided Inclusion Assistance from our beginning.
“It just didn’t have a name or a page on our website. This summer when I was researching how other gyms ran their Special Needs Open Gyms, I stumbled upon a gym that had an ‘official’ Inclusion Assistance Program.
“After speaking to our owner (Ian Dennehy), we determined that while we knew we would work with any family if their child had a desire to do gymnastics, that perhaps there were families that were dismissing the idea that their child could participate in a traditional gymnastics class because they didn’t even think to inquire about their options.
“By creating an official Inclusion Assistance Program, we can educate the community on the options we provide to children with special needs and hopefully open some doors that families previously thought might be shut to their child.”
For the Davis family, what has transpired leaves them amazed.
“(Paige) has benefited from it in all the ways the other kids do,” Mandy Davis said. “She has learned to follow the directions on how to do the different activities, learned to take turns as the other kids are doing an activity, improved her balance and gained confidence.
“I have really seen a difference in how she plays on the different play structures at the park now. She is willing to climb and play independently and try new things.
“An unexpected benefit is that her speech has really improved in the past year and I think gymnastics may have played a role. She loves to lead anyone and everyone in the stretches that she does in gymnastics. She tells us how to do the stretches just like Coach Ashley does.”
Mandy Davis believes the CGA program is more than inclusion while placing an emphasis on belonging.
“The other kids and parents have been very accepting of her,” Mandy Davis said. “We have never felt like we don’t belong.
“Coach Ashley told us of a new program where they have mentors that partner with kids with special needs. That way they can get a little bit of extra assistance, but still be able to participate in classes with their typical peers.
“They encourage her to try new things and give her assistance when she needs it. Paige loves gymnastics class.”
Champaign’s Cari Vanderpool believes the learning at Champaign Gymnastics Academy has evolved into a two-way street.
“My kids and their friends have benefitted from the inclusive attitude of coaches at CGA and their willingness to learn about and accommodate the learning styles and other needs of participants in their team and recreational programs,” Vanderpool said. “Their focus is on having fun and doing your best, and the coaches and staff are all kind, understanding and supportive.
“I’m very excited that CGA is going even further to be inclusive and provide additional assistance to kids who need more support in order to learn and have fun in gymnastics. This will make their programs accessible to even more great kids in our community.”
Lebeau said inclusion classes will be available as staffing is secured.
“The opportunity is offered based on the availability of extra coaches and aids,” she said. “We are working with the Special Education Department at UIUC and Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation (CUSR) to be able to provide more opportunities than our staff alone would allow.
“When we match a child with their age and skill-appropriate class, we reach out to those who have signed up to volunteer in order to find someone who can make that class fit in their schedule.”
Students do not necessarily receive one-on-one assistance, though it can be available.
“In a typical class, a coach works with six to eight students at a time,” Lebeau said. “Circuits and stations are set up so there are three to four stations that a child should be able to try and/or complete independently and then one or two stations where the coach is focusing on spotting or refining a certain skill with hands-on instruction.
“The idea is that certain children may require help on all stations in order to complete them safely or may need one-on-one supervision to help them maintain focus or keep from getting overwhelmed in a busy, high-energy environment. The one-on-one teacher will offer additional spotting, supervision, or assistance in creating alternate stations, if needed.”
Lebeau started into gymnastics as a 3-year-old and continued for a decade.
When she departed, she thought it was for good.
“I didn’t exactly leave the sport on good terms,” she said. “I never would have imagined life would take me back to it.
“When my daughter was 3 and we lived in Pennsylvania, I started her in a gymnastics class. I began assisting the coach on busy days. Eventually I started coaching my own classes and slowly picked up more hours at the gym.”
She worked alongside one of the gym’s owners and watched how she worked with students with special needs.
“We also had a number of kids at the gym who were in wheelchairs or had very limited mobility and would come in for private lessons to help build and condition their muscles,” Lebeau said.
“Working at the Montgomery County Sports Performance Center (in Harleysville, Pa.) was my first experience in a gymnastics environment as an adult, and it set the expectation for how I believed a gym should run.”
After she relocated to Mahomet with her family in January, 2013, Lebeau met Dennehy while taking an adult gymnastics class at the old YMCA on Church Street.
“He mentioned he was opening a gym and needed a pre-school director,” Lebeau said. “After further discussions, I felt Ian had a lot of the same priorities and goals for CGA and that this new gym would have a culture I was excited and proud to be a part of.”
She has a passion for assisting children with special needs.
“I was shown inclusion in the first gym I coached at,” Lebeau said. “From the beginning of CGA, I have worked with a number of kids with special needs and as the gym has grown and more resources became available to us, the desire to implement more programs for kids with special needs became a focus of mine.”
Lebeau and her husband have three children, none of whom have special needs. She finds it tough to think about what it’s like for parents facing other issues.
“I cannot imagine how hard it must be for those parents to not have the same opportunities for their kids as I have for mine,” she said. “It must be heartbreaking.
“Or to be that child who is aware that they are not able to participate in the same activities as their peers. I’m a strong believer in families having a village, families working with and not against each other.
“As a mom in a family and child-centered business, I feel an obligation to make sure CGA is a place all families are welcomed regardless of the struggles they face.”
Early feedback about the inclusion opportunities has been positive.
“After posting about the new program on various local social media forums for special needs, the community seems to be excited,” Lebeau said.
Any student at CGA has the chance to participate beyond the beginner stage, but won’t feel self-conscious about being older than others in their particular group.
“These students will start out in our pre-K program or as beginner gymnasts, but absolutely have the potential to advance,” Lebeau said. “One of the best things about CGA is that our beginner levels are divided by age so no matter how old a child is, they can start at the beginner level with their peers. What 10-year-old wants to take class with a 5-year-old?”
CGA borrowed concepts employed by The Children’s Gym, in Portland, Ore.
“When participating in USAG Conferences, I have also been to lectures that have spoke on being an inclusive gym, but until my research led me to The Children’s Gym, I had not come across another specific program,” Lebeau said. “I believe there a lot of gyms that function as we did for six years — where it’s something that kind of flies under the radar.
“If a parent came to our gym and their child required us to modify our traditional structure to make it work, we always found a way, but it wasn’t something we advertised. I believe this happens mostly due to staffing.
“Adding a second coach to a class is both a logistical and financial challenge for a lot of gyms — and was for us. When we decided to create this program, our biggest obstacle was finding enough aids to meet the potential demand. We are fortunate to be in a community where we can reach beyond our own staff to make this program a reality.”
Classes are ongoing, so there isn’t a deadline time to register.
“A family can sign up for the Inclusion Assistance Program whenever,” Lebeau said. “We have open enrollment for all our classes. How soon the child could start would depend on how fast we could find a match with one of our volunteers.”
The cost for inclusion assistance is $5 per lesson in addition to the usual monthly class tuition and associated fees.
“If a family would like to provide the aid, their child may participate in their age-appropriate gymnastics class with the assistance of a respite provider or therapist for the duration of the class, at no extra cost beyond the usual class tuition and associated fees,” Lebeau said. “We have found over the years many kids can successfully integrate into classes without additional assistance. A child’s coach will be able to work with parents, the child and their aid to determine how long assistance is needed.”
Lebeau is certain her children have benefited from experiencing the workouts with the special needs students.
“My daughter grew up in a gym where she saw a number of kids with special needs and was given the opportunity to interact, ask questions and learn about kids that were different than her,” Lebeau said. “Both her and my son come to our Special Olympics practices regularly as well.
“I believe Inclusion isn’t just about creating separate programs, but also giving children without special needs opportunities to interact, work and play alongside their peers that do. The idea around the Inclusion Assistance Program is giving children with special needs the opportunity to participate independently of their parents in a traditional gymnastics class whenever possible, but also to provide an opportunity for the children in these classes to develop an understanding of those with differences and find ways they can interact and relate to them with compassion and acceptance.”