Balance 180 opened in 2012 and since then we have had over two thousand volunteers and coaches who make Balance 180 the special place that it is. Most of our volunteers come and go as they complete their education at the University of Florida or Santa Fe, but they leave a lasting imprint on the organization. Many of our volunteers went on to become health care workers or educators, today we are checking in with them to see what they are doing now and how they are influenced by COVID-19. Today we are checking in with Emily Reid and Alexis Santos.
When Emily first started volunteering with adaptive in 2013, she recalls the gym was only a small strip of floor with one or two classes. Five years later, Emily helped develop recreational, adaptive, and competitive gymnastics programs and was delighted to see the gym double in size. By her departure in 2018, Emily had played an instrumental role in ensuring the success of Balance 180.
Today, Emily is an outpatient pediatric occupational therapist at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health in Stuart, Florida and is the founder of Three23 Therapy a service that offers Telehealth for children with Tic Disorders and Tourette’s Syndrome.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, Emily works with kids ages zero to 21. Her caseload includes patients who have sensory processing delays, Down syndrome, Autism, delayed milestones, pre-maturity and brain injuries.
Emily loves being a pediatric occupational therapist because she gets to help equip the parents with tools and knowledge to help set their child up for success.
“As occupational therapists, we get to transform not just the child’s lives, but the parents’ lives too,” Emily said. “We help the parents understand what is going on with their child and teach them the best skills to promote their child’s independence, function, and ability to play.”
Emily said she doesn’t think that she would be the occupational therapist she is today without Balance 180 because it made her aware of the importance of community resources.
“I know the value that resources like Balance 180 hold for the kids and families,” Emily said. “I can provide or look for resources for families to help them feel like they are not secluded, different or left out from things.”
With the recent pandemic, most of the therapy sessions have been canceled. However, Emily believes it’s crucial, now more than ever, to stay connected with the families. She said their clinic has been calling families to see if there is anything they need. They have also been sending the patients home programs or activities to continue progress.
Finding ways to stay positive during this time is essential to your mental health. Emily says she turns on a dance party mix every day with her husband and dances in the living room (Grey’s Anatomy style). Knowing Coach Emily, we are not surprised to hear that she has found creative ways to stay encouraged and keep moving forward.
Thank you Coach Emily for sharing your story.
Alexis Santos is one of the kindest people you will ever meet and we were so grateful to have her on our team in our first-ever program at Balance 180. In 2012, when we launched Balance 180 she was one of three musketeers that helped lay the foundation for the Special Olympics Young Athletes Program. She subsequently became a role model assistant coach and completed her internship at Balance 180. In 2014, she was accepted into medical school at UF and we couldn’t be more proud of her.
Alexis said she loved talking to the parents at Balance 180 because it taught her what parents want to see in their kids: their wishes, dreams, and aspirations.
“For me in particular,” Alexis said, “working with kids is not just worrying about their health, but also the social aspects that parents want for their children and being able to address, nurture and foster that.”
She said health is multimodal and there are different aspects that you have to keep in mind. Balance 180 helped show her that mindset and broadened her thinking processes. “Plus you just learn how to work in a fun team environment, which is always helpful – no matter what field you go into,” Alexis said.
Alexis just got some exciting news, and was accepted for her residency at Pediatrics Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C. on the advocacy track. She will make the move across the nation and start her program on June 10th.
Alexis chose the advocacy track because of its focuses on aiding undeserved communities and individuals, a subject she is passionate about. Her work will allow her to not only work in an office setting, but also at a legislative policy setting level, in order to affect real change for those in need.
“With kids, a lot of the things that they are facing with health concerns are not just things that you can solve in the office,” Alexis said. “It’s things like making sure they have access to food and making sure that their families have good housing, making sure that they have access to things like that.”
Alexis temporarily moved back home to South Florida due to COVID-19, however, she shared that her classmates in Gainesville are volunteering to go to the Villages and Grace Marketplace to help administer COVID-19 tests.
“Even though it is a really scary time, there are a lot of good people doing great things and it is very heartwarming,” Alexis said.
Thank you, Alexis, for all you do for children. We wish you well!
Written by Julie Walter.
Balance 180 opened in 2012 and since then we have had over two thousand volunteers and coaches who make Balance 180 the special place that it is. Most of our volunteers come and go as they complete their education at the University of Florida or Santa Fe, but they leave a lasting imprint on the organization. Many of our volunteers went on to be health care workers or educators, today we are checking in with them to see what they are doing now and how they are influenced by COVID-19. Before we do, we would like to thank all of the healthcare workers in our community for the sacrifices they are making to take care of the rest of us. We at Balance 180 wish you safety and offer our utmost gratitude in this difficult time. We love our community and send all of our families and athletes lots of love.
Shannon Domfort volunteered at Balance 180 Gymnastics from 2014 to 2018. She was the volunteer coordinator for the Special Olympic Young Athletes Program and also volunteered in the Adaptive Gymnastics program. Today Shannon is a pediatric occupational therapist at Heart 4 Kids Therapy in Palm Harbor.
“I loved seeing the kids every week,” Shannon said. “My favorite part was seeing how happy the kids were and watching them cheer on their friends!”
Shannon said volunteering with Balance 180 helped prepare her for her career as an occupational therapist. She learned how to modify and adapt the skills for the athletes and it taught her how to be comfortable being hands-on with the kids.
“For the patients’ safety, you have to be comfortable with being hands-on in therapy and there are very few places that prepare you for that in the same way that Balance 180 does.”
Shannon now has a Bachelor of Arts in Health Sciences and Psychology and a Masters in Occupational Therapy. As an occupational therapist, Shannon said every day brings something different. She helps kids ages 4 months old to 16 years old develop functional skills and works with the families to develop systems at home to work on the fundamentals.
With the recent corona-virus pandemic, occupational therapists have been forced to use alternative methods to meet with their patients; namely Telehealth technologies. Shannon has begun using Zoom to see her patients and guide them through their sessions. She and her patients both agree that in spite of being physically separated, these technologies have allowed Shannon to stay up to date on her patients’ progress, and to remain present in their daily lives. In addition, she gets a sneak-peek into the patient’s home life.
“In occupational therapy, we typically are working on ADLs (Activities of Daily Living), self-care skills, behaviors, and transitions within the home,” Shannon said. “With Telehealth, we really get to meet the families where they are.”
Thank you, Shannon, for all you do.
Emily Anne Pozek
Emily Anne Pozek was an invaluable member of the coaching team at Balance 180 in 2014. During her time with us, she used her experience in dance to assist with choreography, and to teach the athletes how to move with grace. Emily is now the Associate Executive Director of Dance Alive National Ballet and teaches in the dance department at the University of Florida.
Emily graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance and a Masters in Arts and Medicine. In her role at Dance Alive National Ballet, Emily uses the company’s outreach programs to bring dance to multiple communities beyond dance studios.
“At Dance Alive we go out into the communities, into after-school programs and senior facilities and teach movement-based classes,” Emily said.
Emily usually teaches one or two classes a day throughout our community. Whether she is visiting Oak Hammock, the Villages, or preschool classes, Emily uses her time trying to invigorate and energize those around her. Most of her classes are geared towards those with Parkinson’s or the elderly, to help them maintain their physical abilities. Emily also works with Dance Alive’s professional company raising funds and finding sponsors.
“We are breaking the barrier of what we see as someone who would be considered a dancer or an athlete or an artist,” Emily said. “My personal mission is to bring communities of people who don’t always have the ability to do something like gymnastics or dance and empower them (to participate).”
Emily recalled that working at Balance 180 prepared her for her current career by exposing her to multiple facets of working in a nonprofit. Moreover, it provided her with a unique opportunity to work with a variety of families, and firsthand examples of the value and importance of healthy family dynamics.
“My favorite part about Balance 180 was being able to work with athletes of all types,” Emily said. “Being able to see everyone in the community under one roof was really special.”
The coronavirus is affecting Emily’s life greatly because she can no longer go into the communities she loves to teach dance, but like so many people she is approaching the challenge with positivity and hope.
“We are expanding our horizons and adapting the way we approach teaching,” Emily said. “It makes us think about how often we take things for granted and is allowing us the opportunity to lean in and think about how we can spread hope and better serve our community.”
Thank you Emily for all you do.
Written by Julie Walter.
Allison Grow is a physician and a parent. She has been a part of Balance 180 for the last seven years and is on the board of directors. Allison’s children, Isabelle and Daniel, do gymnastics at Balance 180, and she wants to share her experience.
“I have two children, and talk about 180 degrees apart. They could not be more different. My 12 year old son, Daniel, is a straight A student and an enthusiastic athlete, playing football and soccer year round. He learns things so fast that he’s usually got the answer before I’ve finished reading the question.
My 14 year old daughter Isabelle had a prenatal brain injury and is mentally handicapped. She was delayed reaching every single developmental milestone, and there are plenty she will probably never reach.
What my kids have in common is Balance 180.
My son practices gymnastics because he realized it would supercharge his agility and core strength on the football field, and he just really likes doing flips.
My daughter started with Balance 180 six years ago and now is on the Alachua County area’s only Special Olympics gymnastics team. She has the least advanced skills of any kid on the team, by far, but let me tell you what she can do because of Balance 180.
When she was about five years old she figured out that you can walk backward as well as forward. I have this vivid memory of her taking off walking backwards down Jacksonville Beach; I had to chase her and turn her around the other way to keep her from disappearing backwards over the horizon. Now she can walk backwards on a balance beam, without looking.
Some of Isabelle’s friends are her Special Olympics teammates. She knows what it means to have teammates because of Balance 180. There are kids with cerebral palsy, kids with autism spectrum disorders, kids with Downs and other genetic syndromes, and kids like Isabelle whose difficulties don’t have a name. There is also a whole boatload of typical kids, who know how to reach out and help kids like Isabelle because they spend time at Balance 180.”
Allison mentioned that being at Balance 180 has encouraged Isabelle to learn use her iPad to look up songs that are incorporated into the classes as well as look up pictures of the friends and volunteer buddies she has met at gymnastics. She also pointed out that Isabelle will talk about Balance 180’s three weeks of summer camp which includes gymnastics, crafts, games, dancing, and special guests, long beyond when the program finishes. Isabelle has a knack for names, and recalls the names of her teammates and the coaches and volunteers who she has trained with over the years.
We are honored to have the opportunity to train Isabelle and Daniel, and enjoy getting to learn how to best tailor our approach to their unique learning styles and abilities. Thank you, Allison for sharing your experience with Balance 180 and for allowing us to work with your awesome children.
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
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