River City Inclusive Gym making a ‘huge difference’ – one athlete at a time

MANAKIN, Va. -- The challenges of being a parent are well known to anyone who has children. But the challenges of those with special needs children can be unlike any you might imagine.

Mike McGrath knows a little about those challenges. He has a masters degree in special education from VCU, and spent his first few years out of school teaching soccer to those children. A family friend owned a gymnastics facility and asked McGrath if he thought that might be another vehicle to help his special needs athletes.

"He had the facility, but he wasn't sure," McGrath said.  "So he asked me would I be interested? I told him probably not because I don't think you can do it."

Luckily, McGrath didn't believe his own words.

Two years ago, that idea became the River City Inclusive Gym. It started with a handful of kids, and now includes nearly 50 athletes ages 3 to 46. The kids work as a group, but the instuctors are there to attend to any individual needs.

Over half of McGrath's athletes are somewhere on the autism spectrum. About 20 to 30 percent have Down's Syndrome.

Progress is measured a bit differently, but is almost always more rewarding.

"Here you can see growth within the hour," McGrath said.  "We always tell the parents how so and so did. You'll never believe what so and so did!"

"One athlete might put both feet on a block and do a full pullup where another, their goal is just to hold their hands on the bar and that's success."

Parents are naturally apprehensive on the first day. It fades quickly.

"The first day is terrible," joked Jill Arseneau who's children attend River City. "They run around. This is a very large gym. There aren't a lot of walls or boundaries here."

"[Jill's son] Luke went in on that first day this year and listened to Coach Mike and stayed with the group and at least attempted to follow all the directions which you can't ask for anything better than that."

"When the parents come I'm like, you're off the hook for an hour," McGrath added. "We can handle the screaming, the throwing,the running away. If you want to text on your phone, chat with other parents, or take a nap."

Other parents see the work done by McGrath and his River City partners as nothing short of miraculous.

"When Case was a baby, they told us he wasn't going to be able to walk," said Caitlin Findlay, another River City parent. "For him to go to a playground and climb a rockwall, climb to the top of a ladder by himself."

"The confidence this has given him, it's something that nobody else can give him."

"He's working on jumping," Arseneau added about her son. "We're not there yet, but he's working on jumping. Those are skills that every kid should just be able to know."

"I shout from the rooftops about River City because I really feel like it's making a huge difference in our lives," Findlay added.

For more information on the River City Inclusive Gym, check out their Facebook page or click here.

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