The People of Balance 180: The Forbes Family

Seven years ago, the Forbes family walked into Balance 180 for the first time. They enrolled their two daughters, Mya who was 7 at the time and Keira who was 5, in one of the two classes we offered. There were only a total of 10 athletes enrolled in Balance 180’s recreational gymnastics classes. The girls watched as the coaches unloaded their cars with gymnastics equipment to set up for classes in the rental space of a cheerleading gym.

Today, Keira is on the competitive gymnastics team and competes in level 4. She trains four days a week and works alongside 40 other competitive athletes. She tumbles on one of the two 42’x42’ floors and refines her tumbling skills on the Tumbl Trak. She swings kips on the uneven bars, cartwheels across the beam, and front handsprings over the vault table. Balance 180 has grown and matured along with her.

“It’s been so nice to see Balance 180 grow because it’s a very supportive and caring environment,” Leanne said. “You have the coaches and the staff, but you don’t really feel like it’s a coach and athlete, it’s more like a community and family.”

The Forbes family exemplifies what it is like to be a part of the Balance 180 community. Every single member of the family has been a part of Balance 180 at some point. Mya was a member of our USA Gymnastics competitive team and competed up to level 3. Keira has been coming to gymnastics practice several times a week since losing her baby teeth, always finding joy in tumbling and trying new skills.  Zach, their 5-year-old brother, participated in the parent and child classes and worked his way up to Fireflies. As a physical therapist, Leanne appreciates Balance 180’s mission of supporting athletes, with or without special needs, and she values the mentorship provided to students supporting our athletes. [She has seen first-hand the benefits of our Special Olympics and adaptive gymnastics programs]. Sean, like many dads, is a familiar face at the gym, picking Keira up at the end of class and always ready to cheer on his daughter at meets.

Keira just finished her last regular meet of the season and her personal goal was to qualify for states. She met that goal, won floor and vault at the Shoot for the Stars meet in Lake Mary, and will be representing Balance 180 at the Level 4 states meet in Winter Haven in December.

“I think getting the mindset that it’s important to set goals but it is not enough to just set them,” Leanne said. “You have to put in the work, you have to learn that they don’t just happen, you just have to be committed and work hard.”

Leanne’s philosophies on gymnastics and athletics stem partly from being a marathon runner. Through her own experiences in sports, she has learned a lot about competing and she passes on her knowledge that it’s important to take both the good and the bad from every competition.

 “You can learn from what didn’t go well and you should be proud of the things that you did well,” Leanne said.

Keira said that gymnastics has taught her how to manage her time efficiently. She is in the sixth grade and finding time to balance school and gymnastics can be difficult at times. She said she finds small blocks of time throughout the day to do her homework, whether it is on the bus to school or during small breaks. She is motivated to get all of her work done so she can go to gymnastics practice.

“Gymnastics has taught me about time management and how to challenge myself,” Keira said.

We want to thank the Forbes family for being a part of the Balance 180 community and sharing their story.

Written by Julie Walter

The People of Balance 180: Ella Poniatowski

Ella Poniatowski competed in her first-ever gymnastics competition this season. She wore a sparkly orange leotard, saluted the judges and smiled big as the crowd clapped for her.

Ella started speech therapy when she was only 18 months old and was diagnosed with autism when she was 22 months old.

She was not connecting with her parents or forming the typical relationship bonds the way she should have been. Her parents enrolled her in speech and occupational therapy three to six times a week. Ella is now seven years old and is still attending therapy.

“Ella was really independent,” Adam Poniatowski, Ella’s dad, said. “Too independent for a child her age.”

In 2017, the Poniatowski family found Balance 180. Ella started in the adaptive class, a class for children who need additional support, to be able to benefit from receiving one on one assistance from volunteers. Ella quickly progressed and was able to join a recreational gymnastics class where the athletes are more independent and participate in a small group setting.

“Ella has to be one of the warmest and most caring athletes that I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” Coach Casey McLaughlin said. “Her smile and personality are contagious among her teammates as well as her coaches. If you’re ever feeling low or down, all you have to do is walk over to Ella, and before you know it, she’ll be holding your hand or hugging you. During practice, she is always the first to go out of her way and cheer on a teammate; she’s just an amazing all-around team player!”

 Her parents say Balance 180 has been like another form of occupational therapy because it helps with her sensory regulation. They also appreciate that Ella is integrated into a class of typically developing athletes.

“Gymnastics have benefited Ella socially, and it has also been good physical activity,” Katharine, Ella’s mom, said. “She has always struggled with gross motor imitation, but now a coach can demonstrate a skill, and Ella can imitate that motor function. She can even put together small sequences.”

A few months ago, Ella was invited to join the Special Olympics Florida Alachua County competitive gymnastics team. The Special Olympics team trains three hours a week has eleven other athletes and competes in local and state competitions. The athletes in the program learn routines and perform them in front of a panel of judges.

“When she first started gymnastics, we did not ever think she would ever be in a team sport,” Katharine said. “I was just blown away that with the one on one attention, she was able to imitate skills and put together a routine.”

Ella said she loves being part of a team and competing. Her favorite part of the competition was hearing the crowd cheer for her.

“Ella trusts the people here, she trusts the coaches and listens to them,” Katharine said. “To see her doing something outside of school is just amazing.”

Thank you to the Poniatowski family for sharing your story. We cannot wait to see what all Ella will accomplish. 

Written by: Julie Walter

The People of Balance 180: Krista Vandenborne

Krista Vandenborne is one of the driving forces behind Balance 180. Without her Balance 180 would not be what is it today. Her vision for the program and commitment to the students, athletes and Gainesville community is nothing less than extraordinary.

When Krista, Carsten and three other board members at the time started Balance 180, they had no background in running a non-profit. They didn’t know how to put their dreams into action but what they did know is that they had a mission. A mission to bring gymnastics and gymnastics related activities to children of all abilities in Gainesville.

“We had no business experience,” Krista said, “We were grandiose and naïve. We didn’t know the first thing about how to start a non-profit.”

Balance 180 started out with a couple of pieces of gymnastics equipment and a rented floor space at Florida Team Cheer.

Krista recalls packing up all of the gymnastics equipment and stuffing it into a car after work, so that they could set up for class. Each time they would move the equipment to the gym, set up for two hours, hold a two-hour class, and then break it all down again, like a traveling circus.

The first ever program Balance 180 offered was the Special Olympics program with 14 athletes. Today, the organization has two fully equipped gyms and over 650 athletes.

“Starting out was definitely a reality check,” Krista said. “We had to start small and grow step by step.”

When Krista’s son, Sean, was little she enrolled him in a recreational gymnastics class. Sean has a learning disability and sensory integration dysfunction. He struggled with fine motor skills and wasn’t the most graceful gymnast in the group.  Krista smiled as she reflected on his time as a gymnast.

“He benefited from doing gymnastics. I saw how much he enjoyed it, even though his toes weren’t pointed and his knees were flexed, there was just this look of pride on his face.”

Krista said she knew when they started planning to create a non-profit gymnastics center, it had to include children like Sean. She said she wanted a place where children of all abilities could grow and learn gymnastics together.

“To me, Balance 180 is a place for kids to feel safe, to feel cared for, and a place where they can build confidence.”

Krista said confidence is the key to success. She remembers working with Sean when he was younger and noticing that he didn’t have the confidence to try things. Her goal is for every athlete to walk into the gym, have fun and walk out with a little more confidence than they started with.

“I always want the kids to leave with an extra bounce in their step, and I think that little bounce tells me they feel good about themselves.”

Balance 180 currently has over 200 volunteers and Krista has made it her mission to create an infrastructure for them to learn and grow professionally.

“The volunteers and the students put their heart and soul into Balance 180, and they make it what it is today,” She said. “They bring so much energy, and so much enthusiasm and a part of my role is to help nurture that and guide them.”

Krista said she believes Gainesville is a wonderful community that offered Balance 180 a unique opportunity. With two institutions dedicated to educating and training students, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College have so many incredible young people willing to give their free time to the community.

“The Gainesville community is very supportive of nonprofit organizations,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have been able to build Balance 180 in Gainesville; I think it was the perfect place for what we do.”

Krista said she believes Balance 180 still has a lot of room for growth and is excited to continue to serve the Gainesville community.

“I can’t wait to see what’s next,” she said.

Thank you, Krista, for all you do.

Written by Julie Walter.

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