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
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.
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.
Aiden and Caleb Estrada are regular fixtures of Balance 180’s Adaptive Gymnastics program. The boys, who are affectionately known as Papa and Buggy, bring joy to the gym and the volunteers who have the opportunity to work with them. We are grateful to the Estrada family for sharing their story.
You’ve seen him emceeing our annual events, dressing up in crazy costumes, and he is the one responsible for stocking the bathrooms with toilet paper. Our president, Carsten Schmalfuss, is genuinely a master juggler. We often like to joke that he’s Balance 180’s very own Batman because he operates in the night, comes willingly when we call, and he always saves the day.
In 2012, five dedicated members of our community banded together to create a nurturing place for children who enjoy gymnastics. A place where kids of all abilities can learn how to be physically active, gain a sense of accomplishment, and make friends. A place where parents can come together, watch their children have fun, and be a part of an extended family.
Carsten recalls a time where Balance 180 was just a concept, “It all started with an idea; and to transition from an idea to reality was incredible. That this idea actually flies and meets the needs of the people in the community. That is awesome.”
Balance 180 got its name because it reminds us that life requires balance. Life can’t just all be about gymnastics or school or work. The 180 reflects a scale and of course in gymnastics 180 happens to be a perfect split, a skill all good gymnasts strive to obtain.
Carsten is a cardiologist who is loved by his patients and staff. He has two daughters, Kiki and Veronika, and moved here from Germany as a medical resident together with his wife Ilona, a well-respected neuroradiologist. As a clinician and parent of former gymnasts, Carsten appreciates how beneficial sports such as gymnastics can be to children’s development.
Carsten says, “Gymnastics is an excellent tool that we can use to teach kids about community, interactions, physical fitness and time management.”
His proudest moment was when he realized that Balance 180 fills a need in the community and has how much support and encouragement we have received as well as how many people have enjoyed our programs.
Carsten hopes for the future that Balance 180 in its core function will be around well beyond the founders’ retirement. He said, “I hope that we put something on a path that will continue to run and be a great resource for our community.”
All of us at Balance 180 are so grateful for Dr. Schmalfuss’ commitment and vision, and the love he pours into our facility and community.
Written by Julie Walter.