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Published October 01, 2012, 11:40 PM

Special needs kids get moving thanks to TNT Fitness program

FARGO – As she entered TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics Academy in Fargo, Sami Pich started squealing with excitement. She knew what was coming. She was going to dance, she was going to tumble, and she was going to bounce on the trampoline, both in and out of her wheelchair.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO – As she entered TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics Academy in Fargo, Sami Pich started squealing with excitement.

She knew what was coming.

She was going to dance, she was going to tumble, and she was going to bounce on the trampoline, both in and out of her wheelchair.

Pich was one of a group of students from Davies High School in Fargo taking part in a physical fitness program for kids with special needs at TNT Kids Fitness.

TNT works with students from Fargo and West Fargo schools and has received funding from the United Way of Cass-Clay to make the programming possible, said Nate Hendrickson, TNT’s special needs and fitness director.

“We see kids of every age and ability from elementary to high school.” he said. “We have kids with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and everything else – sensory processing disorders, emotional behavior disorders, everything that’s on the list, I guess you could say.”

Movement is important for everybody, and some of the students spend a significant amount of time in their wheelchairs, Hendrickson said.

The exercises they go through at TNT help with their stretching and range of motion. Even exercises like bouncing on the trampoline while in their wheelchairs can strengthen their neck and core muscles because they’re using those muscles in ways their bodies are not used to, he said.

The springy floors at TNT allow the kids to bounce without impact, which helps strengthen their cores and improve their postures, Hendrickson said.

Even Sami’s excited screaming is helpful because it helps build lung strength to help reduce sickness, he said.

“Some of these kids have never been jostled because they have special needs and people think they are breakable, and really that’s how we grow,” Hendrickson said. “When we wrestle and play with the kids here, that’s just fulfilling a void. We just give them movements that the kids are craving.”

For the kids with emotional behavior disorders, movement helps them to feel regulated, Hendrickson said.

TNT gives kids an opportunity for movement many schools can’t provide because they don’t have the space or equipment, he said.

The special needs program has been a component of TNT since it opened in 2006.

Kimberly Pladson, TNT’s executive director, worked for Moorhead Public Schools for 11 years before starting TNT and said she wanted to make sure she provided programming for all children of all abilities.

“My heart was opened when I saw the lack of opportunities all children had,” Pladson said.

She said a group of parents who wanted to bring a different opportunity to Fargo-Moorhead got TNT off the ground.

TNT’s special needs program started with five children with special needs and has since served more than 450, Pladson said.

“They get to get out of their chair when they come here. Can you imagine what it would be like to sit in a chair all day?” she said.

Pladson said TNT is one of only two gymnastics fitness facilities in the country that provides programming for children with special needs.

The other facility, Break the Barriers, in Fresno, Calif., helped TNT design some of its early programming, Pladson said.

In June, both Break the Barriers and TNT presented information to the U.S. Department of Education on how to include children with special needs in fitness programming, Pladson said.

“All children of all abilities, they really have the same desires,” she said. “They want to play, they want to be touched, they want to be included.”

Pladson recently received notice from USA Gymnastics that they want TNT to help make videos of autistic children participating in gymnastics programs to bring to clubs across the country, she said. The program would be a template for coaches to start special needs programs in their clubs, Pladson said.

“We are making a difference on a national level,” she said.

TNT is also receiving a federal grant to provide after-school fitness programming. Much of their special needs equipment came from the grant, Pladson said.

For many of the students, their opportunities for physical activity are limited and TNT is the highlight of their day, Pladson said.

“A lot of this is social inclusion,” she said. “We forget that they want to be touched. They want to be hugged.”

Gayle Gordon, a paraprofessional at Davies, said the students talk about TNT all week.

Pich will scream and laugh just in talking about TNT, Gordon said.

The experience also helps paraprofessionals who work with the students gain a better understanding of the students’ abilities, Gordon said.

While on the trampoline with Hendrickson, Pich started moving her legs in a walking motion.

“I didn’t know she could do that until we got here,” Gordon said.

Putting another student on the swing, they discovered he can pump his legs, she said.

The experience also shows the paraprofessionals a different side of the students’ personalities, Gordon said.

TNT, which serves 950 children a week, is facing capacity issues and needs to expand, Pladson said.

While the facility has served more than 450 children with special needs, Pladson said there are more than 3,000 children in the community who have an individual education plan and could benefit from TNTs program.

TNT is a nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors. In addition to special needs programming, the organization also works with top-notch athletes in its team gymnastics program, has a recreational gymnastics program, and runs a kids fitness program.

“At some point in time, you can see a girl doing a double-back and then a wheelchair going across,” Pladson said.

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