You can't help but notice you're not in a typical gym. There's no stern coach towering above students; instead a petite mother-figure bends down on each child's level. The mother of five demonstrates every stretch, spots every move, teaches every class herself.
Some students using the facility are older, lithely mastering gymnastics concepts to complement the competitive sports they try elsewhere. Many are preschool or elementary aged, looking forward to the fun they have each week at Heidi's Musical Gym.
Some can't do all the same things as other kids their age, yet coach Heidi de la Rocha makes sure they feel accepted.
"I see things through children's eyes," de la Rocha reveals, when I try to understand how she's created such a unique program. It looks like fun, while tackling serious child development issues. It includes all children, yet finds a way to include those with special needs. People in the medical field send families to meet her, even though Ms. Heidi does not claim to be a therapist. It's clear that her high level gymnastics experience, paired with her psychology degree from BYU, are being put to to good use. Yet, there's something more about the way she relates, even more than her experience as a mother, something about her gentle mannerisms.
De la Rocha feels blessed to offer something she didn't have in her early childhood. She didn't begin gymnastics until she was 12 years old. "That is the only thing that I felt normal in. I went into the gym, that's something I accelerated in. I did not excel in school. I was expected to be in special education class all day long, and it was awful, it was very traumatizing, it was terrible and you felt stupid. So when I went into gymnastics it was a whole different world for me." She studied psychology for a short time in graduate school. That's when volunteering to teach physical education classes for special needs kids further inspired her career goals.
It's apparent that the sensitivity this coach feels for each and every child is a large part of her success over the past dozen years. The typically developing child may need encouragement to learn new skills like walking on the balance beam or strengthening the upper body on bars. Then there are the moments some parents thought they might never experience. "I've had some kids take their first steps here that couldn't walk before." De la Rocha adds, "I love the kids and I really want to help them a lot. It's really a gift, not from me, from God." For special needs, she offers private classes, special needs classes or small classes where a child with a disability may be learning the same skills alongside those in the typical development range.
Ms. Heidi, as the children call her, fosters an atmosphere where all children can learn with dignity, "If it wasn't for gymnastics, I don't know where I'd be, so I try to have a place like that for families and kids. That's why I want to help other people to feel the way I feel about gymnastics, so that's really what's inspired this whole thing." The gym hosts a support group for parents and children with special needs, even if they don't enlist in the classes.
De la Rocha remains humbly unassuming about her influence on young gymnasts' lives and how far-reaching it might be. Yet she is adept at including tasks like midline crossing into a fun obstacle course that children love. Because of her frustrating experiences as a child, she seems happiest about the social impact of her work. Numerous parents have thanked her for helping children with special needs, "They're able to maneuver their bodies better at school, on the playground and therefore play with other kids. You have that thing in common, 'hey I can do the monkey bars, or I can run, or I can catch a ball,'...so it really helps kids socially speaking, because that's what this world's about, social acceptance."
For the first time, de la Rocha and her husband, Ashley, who runs the business side of things, are offering a home video for parents to use. It's inspired by many of the things she's used in classes over the years, and offers ideas for basic skill work with simple items like bean bags, plastic bottles and old tires. The suggested age range is 2 to 7. De la Rocha explains, "It's really inexpensive things that really could help a child become more coordinated, stronger, using their left and right side, midline crossing. Even for typical developing kids, it's really good if you want to get ready for school or preschool. They're ready as far as playing with the other kids outside, pe classes, even if they want to do gymnastics." You can learn more about the video at TherapeuticMoves.com
Heidi's unique approach to working with young athletes...