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
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.
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.