Special needs kids can join the fun at gym in Indiana Township


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Finding a gym program for a child with special needs can add another layer of challenge to everyday life for parents.

While some gyms have inclusion programs, few, if any, facilities appear to offer services designed for special needs families. River Kids Gym in Indiana Township, recently opened at the site of another gym, hopes to fill that void. River Kids, owned by Cherie River of River Speech & Educational Services Inc. has therapists who work with special needs kids and develop individualized programs for them.

The gym is a longtime dream for Ms. River.

"I wanted to have a recreation facility for all children, but one where we could also specially work with children with special needs," she said. The gym officially opened as River Kids Gym March 1, but the site on Saxonburg Boulevard formerly housed another children's gymnasium.

Ms. River is a speech language pathologist with a master's degree from Indiana State University. When she was 18, she started volunteering with ACHIEVA, a nonprofit that provides services to children and adults with disabilities.

"My nephew, Harrison, was born with Down syndrome, and that inspired me," she said.

After completing her education, Ms. River went to work for ACHIEVA and, few years later, began working as a individual practitioner. In 2003, she expanded her business and hired other employees. Today, she has more than 30 employees, including occupational, physical and speech therapists -- and still works with ACHIEVA. She also has after-school tutoring services available.

With her educational services business in Hartwood Towne Centre, Ms. River contacted her landlord to tell him she was interested in installing a climbing wall in her offices for her clients.

"He told me he actually had one available," she said. As it turned out, a gym in the same complex was closing. Ms. River went to view the climbing wall and realized there was other equipment in the facility that she could use.

"This worked out perfectly, because I was able to move up my dream to have a recreational facility and use it for inclusion and therapy services as well," she said.

The facility has open gym time, classes and classes for special needs children. There are also one-on-one therapy times.

"Our services are based on the component of Action Based Learning, where we sneak in learning objectives while the children are playing," she said. Action Based Learning is a trademarked program based on research that sees links between physical activity and improved educational performance. It is geared primarily to youngsters 4 to 7 years old.

Ms. River stressed that every class, not just those for special needs children, is designed by licensed therapists and physical education instructors. Classes incorporate core fitness, including cardio, balance, tumbling, climbing, agility and coordination and ball skills, she said.

While the therapists workwith children in occupational, speech and other areas of need, they can also incorporate gym time, either in a group or individually, with their clients. For some special needs families, the therapy sessions can be billed to insurance companies. Otherwise, membership for children is $52 per month, or $13 per class. There are longer memberships at varying rates, and the fee per class for nonmembers is $14.

Gym services for children with special needs appear to be few and far between.

Beth Whitehouse, executive director of Greater Pittsburgh Autism Speaks, said she is unaware of other programs in the Pittsburgh area. "While I know of equestrian programs and some gyms that allow special needs children to be included in programming, I am not aware of any gym that provides services specifically for children with special needs," she said, "And this is truly an area of need for families."

Jennifer Kostolansky, communication manager for Wesley Spectrum Services, agreed. "We don't know of any other specialized gym programs," This is a great resource," she said.

That is one reason Brigitte Huffman of Oakmont was happy to learn of River Kids Gym.

"My son, Luke, had sensory issues and when we had him tested, we found out he was behind in his gross and fine motor skills," she said. He began occupational therapy, which now includes playing in the gym with other children with a therapist present.

"I can see a lot of difference in his behavior since he started his therapy, and it is great to see him interact with other kids at the gym," she said.

Beth Orbin of Oakmont takes her 3-year-old son, Will, to the gym. According to Mrs. Orbin, Will has speech and occupational therapy at River and when the gym opened, it was a natural extension to his existing therapy. "His [occupational] therapist works with him at the class, so he not only receives the therapy that helps him in developing his large and small motor skills, but he has social interaction with the other children. That also helps with his speech."

An elementary school teacher herself, Mrs. Orbin loves the gym setting for Will's sessions."Plus having the same therapist for the one-on-one and in the gym has made him comfortable in gym, which is a newer setting."

Lisa Marchlewski of Cheswick takes her son, Tyler, 5, to the River gym.

"He has a hard time sitting still and really likes to jump and climb and run around. These activities pique his interest and he can interact with his therapist more," she said.

Tyler, who has autism, receives speech and occupational therapy through the River program and works with the speech therapist in the gym setting. "He can also sit for longer periods of time for one-on-one sessions after he is in the gym," she said. Another benefit is that Tyler looks forward to his therapy sessions when he knows he is going to the gym.

"Sometimes he has melt-downs when he goes to therapy and since he has been going to the gym, he hasn't had one yet," said Mrs. Marchlewski.


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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