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Gymnastics program praised

Heidi De La Rocha, of Heidi’s Musical Gymnastics, has created a gymnastics program for special needs children that has garnered praise and written testimonials from local pediatric specialists.

“Heidi is a gifted teacher. Her work with special needs children is truly amazing. The results are dramatic,” Dr. Nadine Trainer, director of pediatric rehabilitation at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, said.

“Heidi has the ability to take movement goals and incorporate them into fun activities that are functional for families to carryover with their child at home,” Pat Webb, program director of The University of Tennessee Medical Center’s Pediatric Language Clinic, said.

De La Rocha, who has been teaching gymnastics for 16 years and working with special needs children for 10, said she wanted to create a place for special needs children where they can “find complete joy. When these kids go to school and to their therapy appointments, they have so many things they have to work on. When they come here we have things that they work on too, but we do it in a fun way.”

Special needs children hold a special place in De La Rocha’s heart.

“When I grew up, I was in special education,” she said. “Back then they didn’t main-stream you [with the other children] and you always knew you were different. They put you in a classroom all day long and you were made to feel stupid. I don’t think they did it on purpose, but I never learned what the other kids were learning, I had to work on my ‘problem.’

“When I took my first gymnastics class at [age] 12, that was it for me. This was something I could do well. I didn’t feel the pain of being different. This has been my haven ever since.

“This is not just a business for me. This is something that I feel, something that I have lived and I understand.”

De La Rocha said her program is not a traditional gymnastics program, even for typical developing children.

“I first work on fine and gross motor skill development. We work a lot on spatial awareness and strength-building exercises, but it’s all movement. The most important thing is for a child to understand how [his or her] body works. Once they understand that, then we can move on from there,” she added.

Though De La Rocha competed heavily in gymnastics in college, her Brigham Young University gymnastics team was ranked sixth in the nation, she does not run a competitive program.

“I want the kids to come here and not feel any pressure. I feel like life is tough enough as it is,” she said.

“I teach normal developing children, I teach cheerleaders, we do the handsprings and the more typical stuff and its fine for them [that it is not competitive],” she added.

De La Rocha said her lesson plans for special needs children is similar to that of normal developing children.

“We just go slower,” she said. “Every child learns differently. Some learn from visual cues, some learn from auditory cues and some learn physically. For my special needs kids, I take pictures of them and that is their lesson plan for the month. I ask them to describe for me what they are doing in the picture and then have them do it. I write things down for them to see and I demonstrate as well as help them put their bodies through the motions.”

Though De La Rocha’s program is not competitive, she does have expectations of each child.

“I build a relationship with each child that is based on mutual trust. I know what they expect from me and they know what I expect from them. I expect them to do their best. If they cannot do something, that is fine, but I expect them to try.

From me, they expect me to be loving, accepting, helping and nurturing. If they feel all that, then they will progress, but without that relationship there is no progress,” she said.

Laurie Dorman, whose son, Ryan, has been part of De La Rocha’s special needs program for three years, said, “Ryan has come a long way. He has balance issues, vision issues and focus issues, but Heidi does not focus on the limitations, she is all about the possibilities. She sees potential in every child who walks through that door.”

Judith Lambert said her son, Christian, who has mild cerebral palsy, has made “phenomenal progress” in the three years he has been participating in De La Rocha’s program.

“Heidi is assisting him with his balance and gait issues. When he first started, he could do one, maybe two, steps [on the balance beam]. Now he can walk the whole thing,” she added.

For additional information on Heidi’s Musical Gymnastics, call 865-671-4116.


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