GiGi’s Playhouse: Shedding Light on Down Syndrome

March 21, we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day. People all over the world will gather together to raise public awareness and create a single global voice advocating for the rights and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. Today, we would like to bring attention to an organization that not only accepts the Down syndrome community, but celebrates it.

We would like to feature our friends at GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville, a Down syndrome Achievement Center that provides free therapeutic and educational services for individuals with Down syndrome and their families.

GiGi’s primary goal is to change the way the world views individuals with Down syndrome.

According to Lilly Bell, Vice President of GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville, the organization currently services around 250 families. She said they focus on making sure GiGi’s feels like a family.

“When you walk through those doors, you feel immediate love and acceptance,” said Bell.

The organization’s motto is to ‘educate, inspire and believe’. Bell said that they educate families to raise awareness, inspire all people to be accepting and believe in the children’s abilities to give their “best of all.”

“Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, we just expect you to give your best, every day you keep working, and your best gets better,” said Bell. “That’s doing your best of all.”

GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville is one of 41 playhouses nationwide and currently offers five therapeutic and educational programs including a one-on-one literacy tutoring program specially designed to the way individuals with Down syndrome learn.

The therapeutic programs are purposefully structured to focus on developing social skills, fine motor skills and gross motor skills. In each program, there are around seven to 10 individuals. The individuals’ families stay throughout the sessions and are able to socialize with other parents to strengthen the community feel.

Rebecca Detwiler has been bringing her 5-year-old son, Andrew, to GiGi’s every Saturday since it opened four years ago.

Detwiler said that GiGi’s has a very warm and welcoming atmosphere where the children can benefit from social interactions.

“It’s a stimulating learning environment with fun activities where he feels comfortable and accepted by his peers,” said Detwiler.

Valerie Crown and her 17-year-old daughter, Courtney, have been involved at GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville since the beginning.

Crown said that both she and her daughter have a lot of friends at GiGi’s and enjoy socializing with the parents, children and volunteers.

“The volunteers really make her feel special,” said Crown. “She thrives from the attention.”

Bell said she is hopeful that in the future GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville can continue to expand.

Thank you to GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville for sharing your story and for all that you for the Down syndrome community.

Written by Julie Walter

The People of Balance 180: Alyssa Harris

Alyssa Harris’ passion has always been movement. From a young age, she has participated in gymnastics, competitive cheerleading, and Pilates.  When she discovered her love of dance she threw herself into the art, studying and performing it every day from then on out.

Alyssa went to the New World School of the Arts, a performing arts school in downtown Miami, where her entire life revolved around the art of dance. She woke up before the sun came up to ride the metro to her school, attended academic classes all day and then attended dance classes, rehearsed for upcoming performances, took the metro rail home and danced at her local studio until the sun was long gone.

When Alyssa graduated high school and made a move to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida, she decided to share her love of dance with the Gainesville community.

She is the line dance chair for Alpha Epsilon Phi and choreographs the organization’s dances for various philanthropy events to benefit the Alzheimer Association, CHOMP Cancer, Huntsman, Cancer Foundation, Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation, Sharsheret and more.

Alyssa has also been a coach at Balance 180 for the last three years. She is kind and patient and loves working with the athletes.

“I want the athletes to improve the best they can, but still have fun while they are doing it,” Alyssa said.

When Alyssa first started at Balance 180, she assisted the competitive gymnastics team by focusing her attention on their dance and form. Gymnastics routines can be very technical and with Alyssa’s help, the competitive team athletes learned grace and technique.

She currently coaches pre-team, a group of athletes that works on foundational skills to join the competitive team. Alyssa also coaches recreational classes, adaptive gymnastics and serves as our very talented choreographer.

She designed the dances for the Candy Cane Classic, various summer camp dances and Balance 180 performances at the Gators Gymnastics meets. Alyssa said she has grown as a person and has learned a lot throughout her time as a Balance 180 coach.

“I’ve learned how to be really patient whether it’s working with kids or other people,” Alyssa said. “Being a leader is not just standing up and saying ‘this is what we are going to do’ it’s about listening to your surroundings and having that 180-degree view.”

Alyssa is currently studying Applied Physiology and Kinesiology with a goal of using her love of movement to become a physical therapist.

She was previously an intern at the Israel Sports Center for Disabled Children and Adults. There she worked with children of all abilities ranging from cerebral palsy, epilepsy and cognitive impairments. She also worked with adults who had Parkinson’s and were wheelchair bound or used other assistive devices. The primary challenge with her internship was that most of the patients did not speak English.

“I had to pay close attention to their body language,” Alyssa said. “I used what I had learned through dance and movement to communicate with children and adults at the sports center.”

Thank you, Alyssa, for sharing your story.

Written by Julie Walter.

Five Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy for Valentine’s Day (and beyond!)

Before you give your heart away to that special someone this Valentine’s Day, make sure it is beating healthy and strong! According to Cupid (and the American Heart Association), roughly 25% of Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease. Here are some tips to improve your heart health:

 

1. Maintain a healthy weight 

Load your diet with veggies and whole grains. Reduce your sodium intake by swapping salt with herbs and spices. Avoid refined sugars and carbs such as in sodas, candy, and white bread. Eat fruit and lean meats. Even a modest weight loss can improve your heart health!

 

2. Know your fats

Not all fats are bad, healthy fats can help lower your total blood cholesterol. Unsaturated (healthy) fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados can be eaten in moderation. Avoid trans-fats such as shortening, those used to make deep fried foods, and potato chips. Lower your intake of saturated fats by trimming your meat, limiting butter, and choosing reduced fat dairy products.

 

3. Keep it moving 

Regular exercise is crucial for heart health. Exercise moderately at least 20-30 minutes per day. Jogging, biking, or swimming can get the job done! If you have a sedentary job, try parking farther away from the office or taking walking breaks throughout the day and use stairs. Wearing a pedometer is another great way to keep track of your fitness goals.

 

4. Sleep is NOT for the weak

Getting enough sleep at night can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. Enough sleep is important for both adults and children (most people need 7-8 hours sleep per night). When you sleep, your heart doesn’t need to work as hard. This lowers your heart rate and blood pressure giving your heart a chance to relax.

5. Be smoke-free

Smokers are at a 25% higher risk of heart disease than nonsmokers. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and stiffens your blood vessels. Second-hand smoke is also harmful, particularly for children and people with asthma or other lung diseases.

 

With these points in mind, your heart will be ready for whatever Cupid throws your way. And as a bonus tip: Ask your Valentine for dark chocolates, they’re actually good for your heart!

If you want to know more:

Written by Jessica Goldman.

Team Florida Goes for the Gold!

With the first week of July comes the kick-off of National Hot Dog Month, National Ice Cream Month, National Picnic Month, and the patriotic spirit for the 4th of July. But what you may not know is amidst all the summer celebration also comes the start of the Special Olympics 2018 USA Games. The 2018 USA Games take place every 2 years with athletes from all over the United States. This year they are held in Seattle, Washington. This special and monumental event began with an opening ceremony on Sunday at the University of Washington’s Huskey Stadium to honor the 3,000 athletes that will be competing in the Games from Sunday, July 1st to Friday, July 6th. The Special Olympics flag was also raised all the way to the top of the Space Needle to honor the Games, the athletes, the ideals of Special Olympics, and its 50th anniversary.

One of the biggest goals of Special Olympics is to encourage acceptance of all individuals of varying abilities. Each day Special Olympics strives towards inclusion in athletics, and these 2018 USA Games are just one of the many ways in which they will showcase that. In addition to celebrating these games, Special Olympics participants will also be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics in honor of Eunice Shriver, who was the founder of Special Olympics and the one who started this movement towards inclusive sports. These Games are an impactful way to commemorate the road that Eunice Shriver paved, as well as all the accomplishments and progress that these athletes are making today.

The 2018 USA Games will consist of 14 different sports that athletes from all over the U.S. will be competing in over the span of a week. Specifically, Team Florida will have over 230 athletes competing in Athletics (track and field), Basketball, Bowling, Bocce, Flag Football, Golf, Gymnastics, Powerlifting, Soccer, Softball, Stand Up Paddle, Swimming, Tennis, and Volleyball. Team Florida headed to Seattle in style as the Miami Marlins baseball team hosted a special send-off on Friday, June 29th. Among these athletes were our friends from LEAP South Florida, who will be representing the Special Olympics Florida Gymnastics Team. The athletes of LEAP South Florida joined us last year here at Balance 180 for the 2017 Special Olympics Area Games. We will be cheering them on all the way from Gainesville as they go for the gold!

For more information and updates on the event, visit specialolympicsusagames.org. Results for Team Florida and specific events, such as Gymnastics, can also be found here! 

 

Written by Casey McLaughlin

The People of Balance 180: Matteo Gavilano

“I have Asperger’s, don’t worry it’s not contagious.”

As a child, Matteo Gavilano didn’t talk a lot. He was quiet and didn’t like walking on grass or sand.  Sometimes stretching his arms and his legs out was just too difficult. So at 2 years old, his family decided to visit a doctor and get a medical opinion. Matteo was diagnosed with a speech delay and then later with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.  

“It was hard to accept in the beginning, he was so little and scheduled for therapy every day of the week. But in the end, early intervention made a big difference and paid off.”

Matteo has been a part of the Balance 180 gymnastics family since early 2012. Six years later, he is training on the Special Olympics Competitive team. He was chosen for the Jaime Gomez Scholarship, an award given to the athlete who most embodies one of our late founders Jaime Gomez.  And this past month, he gave a magnificent speech at the Young Athlete’s Program’s Culminating Event.

“I never thought I had a disability before the day my dad told me.”

Matteo is in fifth grade and preparing to undertake middle school at the Howard Bishop gifted program next year. Starting middle school is scary for everyone but preparing a child with autism can be a bit more challenging. Matteo’s family decided it was time to tell Matteo about his diagnosis.

They started by showing him videos and told him why he is so unique. They explained what made him different from other kids, especially when it comes to social interactions. Matteo now understands autism and explains it as “the reason he is special”. But Matteo wasn’t the only one his parents had to inform. Matteo’s sister, Camilla and the rest of the extended family in Peru also had to be educated.

Giovana, Matteo’s mom, says educating the family is a process. They understand his diagnosis, but there are certain things they can’t comprehend. When situations come up, it’s hard for them to know how to respond in the best way.  It’s one thing to know what autism is, but it’s very different to live with it.

Autism awareness in the United States has made incredible progress, but in Peru, there are far fewer resources available for families who have children with special needs. Giovana’s is grateful that her children were born in the US where Matteo can get the education, supportive recreation, and therapy he needs. She says through therapy sessions and gymnastics classes two to three times per week he has been able to gain more confidence, improve his flexibility and strength tremendously and create valuable social connections. Matteo Gavilano has grown into a strong and independent young man, and we could not be more proud of him.

Written by Julie Walter.

People of Balance 180: One story at a time.