Journal · Occupational Therapy

Volunteering at Balance 180

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Hey everybody! Thank you for all of your kind words and messages regarding my last posts! I very much appreciate it and it is so nice to know I have a wonderful support system.

I wanted to share with you all my experiences that I have had while volunteering the past five weekends. Balance 180 is a gym in Gainesville that teaches gymnastics to children of all ages and all abilities. I had heard about them during last school year and was very interested, but they train volunteers at the beginning of each semester so I had missed my opportunity. However, I had given them my information at a event I had gone to with the hopes of volunteering sometime in the future. I got an email a few months ago with the opportunity to help be a volunteer with their adaptive gymnastics team.

Adaptive gymnastics is a program that they hold on Saturday’s during the summer where children with special needs get to participate in all aspects of gymnastics. It is even more special because there is one-on-one or two-on-one interaction with the athletes. There will be one or two volunteers assigned to one athlete who will follow them around and assist them through each station, cheering them on, helping them follow instructions, and physically assisting them as well when needed. This is wonderful as it helps each athlete get the attention they need to keep them safe and engaged in the activity.

The gym is set up in a very strategic way that is designed for children, especially those with sensory and processing difficulties, to understand. When the athlete comes into the gym, the person that they are working with picks them up from their parents and takes them over to their team station. There are a few different teams that are planned out ahead of time that group the athletes by age and ability, and they are given a specific color. That day we will all be a team with that color, and at the end of each station before we rotate we will have a team cheer. For example, if the team is green, we would all put our hands in a circle and say, “1..2..3…GREEN TEAM!” This is wonderful for the athletes to feel like they are part of a team and build friendships along the way!

Each session starts with a warm up designed to get the athlete more flexible and ready for the work out! We begin with singing a welcome song that is filled with sign language to help the athletes follow along, and then move into stretches. They are all called fun names to help the athletes stay engaged, such as the “monkey” or the “starfish.”

We then will rotate around four or five stations: bars, floor, beam, vault, and the tumble track. It is important to know the background of your athlete that you are paired up with that day so you know how far they have progressed physically and what areas they need to work on. For example, a boy that I got to work with for a few weeks had a lot of problems with jumping with two feet, so that was an area we really stressed. By the end of last week he had finally started doing some jumping on his own, which made me want to cry! It was so wonderful to see how much progress he had made in just the few short weeks I had known him!

One of the reasons I have loved being a part of Balance 180 is that I have learned so much about working with children who have special needs, something I had already had experience with but always needed more in for OT in the future. I have really gotten to put what I have learned in school to the test, and it is amazing to see how each child responds differently to something. For example, that little boy that I was working with has autism, so he easily gets overstimulated during the stations and needs some time to chill out. I got to figure out what strategies worked best for him to calm down, and for me it was a very helpful learning experience. He, like many people with sensory difficulties, likes firm touch. Between every activity or two we would give each other a tight hug, and between rotations he would sit in my lap and I would hug him from behind as we rocked back and forth. This really helped center him in and get him to focus. Because my sister has Autism and this is not something that really works for me, it was so interesting to see how different techniques work for different people, and it is a good reminder to learn as much as you can about a subject, since you never know what will work!

Here are a few pictures that the people at the gym posted from our first week of Adaptive Gymnastics! It was such an amazing day, and it got even better from there on out!

Overall, my time spent at Balance 180 has been so amazing, and I have left every time with so much joy! Though I won’t be able to participate every weekend as the summer goes on and there are other things planned, I am looking forward to helping with their summer camp in a few weeks! If you are looking for more information about Balance 180 and all of their programs, click here to go to their website! They are an amazing organization and I would love to see them get more of the attention they deserve!

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