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Special kids get a jump on sports and togetherness

By Kristine Crane
Staff writer

Zaivion and Zachary Mason of Gainesville never used to play together. Although the two brothers are just a year apart, they were born with one big difference between them: Zaivion, 7, has cerebral palsy, a disease of the central nervous system affecting motor skills, and his little brother doesn’t.

For a long time, that meant they didn’t really interact with each other, said their mother Lashaunda Mason. But after participating in a local sports program designed to bring together children with and without disabilities, the two brothers play together all the time.

“They like to wrestle and toss the ball back and forth,” their mother said, adding, “Anytime Zaivion needs something, Zachary helps him out.”

The program, called the “Young Athletes Program,” is part of Balance 180, a Gainesville-based gymnastics and sports academy started by a couple of parents whose daughters did gymnastics. Carsten Schmalfuss, a cardiologist at Shands at the University of Florida and the VA, and Krista Vandenborne, the department chair of physical therapy at UF, knew that sports was one way that kids could feel good about themselves, and they wanted all types of kids to have that opportunity.

So they started the “Young Athletes’ Program,” for children aged 2-7 with disabilities, along with their peers, to improve the kids’ physical skills and teach them to have fun together. After several weeks of bi-weekly practices, the group gathered on Sunday for a Special Olympics-style event at St. Francis Catholic High School in Northwest Gainesville.

As Vandenborne explained, the Special Olympics program normally starts at age 8, but their program gives kids a head start in the skills and mentalities that will help them throughout school.

“They really learn to take turns and follow directions,” Vandenborne said, explaining that the kids without disabilities – often siblings – learn tolerance and gain respect for their peers. “They might not even notice the wheelchair anymore,” she said. “That’s really what we want the community to be like.”

Schmalfuss agreed.

“These kids are so young that they don’t really have prejudices. They are really showing us (adults) the way,” she said.

At Sunday’s event, 24 children in small groups participated in various events that included running relays, hopping relays, kicking, an obstacle course, and tossing a ball. UF cheerleaders cheered them on, and gave them stickers as they finished each event. Jillian Roberts, a UF sophomore and one of the torchbearers at the London Olympics last summer, carried the same gold torch for Sunday’s opening ceremony.

Volunteers, mostly UF students of health sciences, guided the kids through the events. Ryan Hidalgo, a pre-med student at UF, said he learned about the program in a class called “Exceptional People in School and Society” about interacting with disabled people. Hidalgo said it was rewarding to work with kids who had developed enough strength over the course of the program to get out of their wheelchairs.

“A lot of pre-meds volunteer at hospitals and end up changing bed-sheets. But with this, you are directly making a real impact on their lives,” Hidalgo said.

Lashaunda Mason can attest to that. She loves seeing her boys interact now and said the program helped bridge the gap between them since birth. Now, other differences help define them: Zachary has short hair and likes math, and Zaivion has braids and likes to be in charge, said Mason.

“But they’re both honor roll students and love reading,” said Mason. “And they both are chatterboxes.”

This article can be found at The Gainesville Sun.

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