Instead of your average physical and occupational therapy, A Big Blast not-for-profit organization offers special needs kids what is more of a fun and engaging gymnastics class.
With locations in Mundelein and Downers Grove, the program's founder, Rhonda Penzell, talked about what makes it a unique and effective experience for kids.
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Q. When was the organization founded?
A. "It was founded in July 2009."
Q. Did you always know you wanted to work in physical therapy with kids with special needs?
A. "I'm actually a recreational therapist and graduated working with kids with special needs 30-something years ago. I wanted to get back with what I was passionate about. I volunteered in high school with kids with special needs."
Q. What's the purpose of the organization?
A. "It's about finding a way to have therapy be fun for kids. They don't think it's therapy, they think it's gymnastics. Gymnastics is an amazing sport for kids with special needs because it engages every muscle. Many of these kids have very low muscle strength and there are things to learn in a gymnastic center. I tell all my therapists to call themselves coaches so the kids don't think of them as therapists."
Q. How many therapists do you have working with the kids?
A. "We have about five physical and occupational therapists. All the kids need to do is have a prescription from their doctor to participate. We also check for insurance eligibility."
Q. How do you make the therapy fun and engaging?
A. "The fact that it's gymnastics makes it fun. The kids learn how to swing on the rings, balance on a beam, jump on the trampolines."
Q. What is the purpose of the therapy for the children?
A. "Since these kids have low muscle tone, you know, just trying to get out of a foam pit is challenging and engaging themselves. As they start to do different things within the gym, their muscles begin to acquire memory for how to grab on to things or move a certain way. As they get better at the exercises, the better they remember how to do it. We also do a lot of obstacle courses, which teaches the kids motor planning as well as how to climb."
Q. Since gymnastics can be dangerous, do you have certain safety precautions in place when working with the kids?
A. "Our program director is both a gymnastics Special Olympics coach and special education recreation therapist, so she trains all of the therapists to learn correct spotting techniques. There's also so much padding everywhere, and there are now in-ground trampolines, so its very safe."
Q. What has been most rewarding in terms of this experience?
A. "It's amazing what we take for granted until you watch one of these kids try to climb over something. This method provides a different way to get the brain and body to move together. We see amazing results too. Parents are calling and saying to us 'My son can jump with two feet', or 'He can run on the playground with the other kids.' It's the confidence that they acquire from the exercises which have amazing repercussions on their whole being."
Q. What do you get most out of the experience?
A. "For me, it's always been the smiles on their faces or doing things they've never done before. It's hearing stories about how they have more confidence in themselves and at school. One of the most heartwarming things is what I call the 'Blasted Forward' program in which we bring in high school kids to help in the sports program, gymnastics, or martial arts classes. These kids buddy up with our kids and develop relationships. They truly realize how they're affecting these kids' lives."
Q. Is there anything else you'd like to add about the program?
A. "We are a new not-for-profit and we're looking for community giving or aid to help us provide more programs for kids who can't afford it."
•A Big Blast can be reached online at abigblast.com or by phone at (847) 650-8161.