Jessica and Jeffrey Sills have walked similar paths since their days as high school sweethearts.
They graduated together from Lake Shore High School, married and blazed careers working with children – Jeffrey as a physical education teacher at John T. Waugh Elementary School, Jessica as a speech-language pathologist who provided home visits for Erie 2 BOCES and the Lake Shore school district.
The Derby couple, both 33, became vegans together, had two daughters – Camila, 4, and Olivia, 3 – then turned their attention toward what they’d discovered on the job was a community need: a gym for all kids, regardless of their needs.
Jeffrey found what they sought as the two starting planning the business: We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gym, a Tarzana, Calif.-based franchise founded and owned by Dina Kimmel, who has a son with autism. They opened their first gym last September at 6950 Erie Road in their hometown. They recently opened their second in the Valu Home Center plaza at 5427 Transit Road in Clarence.
“People will come to us and ask, ‘Do you have a child with autism?’ We don’t but we know so many kids with autism and special needs that have touched our lives since we started our careers,” Jessica Sills said. “That is exactly what drove us to do this. We feel blessed in our lives and really wanted to give back to the community.”
Q. Is the equipment the same at both gyms?
Jessica: When you purchase a franchise, there are 10 pieces of required equipment: a trampoline, hammock swings, carpet swings, tunnels, a bolster swing, zipline, climbing structures. On top of that, Jeff and I talked with OTs and PTs we’ve worked with in the community to say, “What else would be great to have here at the kids gym?”
Jeffrey: The 10 pieces of required equipment are the same at both locations but some of the swings are different for families that come to both. We can move things around a little bit, too. The Rock Shop Store, with Melissa & Doug functional toys, are in both gyms.
Q. What are some of the special needs that you’ve seen?
Jessica: Everything from autism to sensory processing disorder, Down syndrome, children with ADHD or ADD, children with cerebral palsy and children with speech and language impairments. We talk all the time about how every child has some sort of sensory processing challenge and we see it in our own kids. We’re helping all of these other kids and we’re finding at the same time we have to help our kids regulate their systems.
Q. It sounds like what you’re saying is that every child can learn through play.
Jessica: Yes. And every child can benefit from coming here. It is a gym for all kids, all ability levels. It’s a place where kids came come together to learn, to grow, in a safe, nurturing environment.
Q. What is the dynamic here that really impresses you?
Jeffrey: You give children some freedom and see what they can do with the equipment on their own, it’s pretty impressive. When they come in the first time, they’re shy and timid for the most part, but even an hour into their first visit, when they’re going down the zipline, their parents are going, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.”
Q. How do your kids feel about mom and dad opening kid’s gyms and how often do they get to hang out there?
Jessica: They can’t get enough of it. We were bringing them every day and then we decided they needed to have some separation from the gym. They’re here three to four days a week. We’re here seven days a week.
Q. Talk about the business name and its motto, “Finally a place where you never have to say ‘I’m sorry.’”
Jessica: We Rock the Spectrum owner Dina Kimmel, CEO and founder, has a son with autism. The name comes from being able to rise above any obstacles she came across as a mom and her desire to make this an amazing place for kids and families. This is a place where all kids can come together. The motto resonates strongly whether you’re a parent of a child with special needs or someone who works closely with children with special needs. So many times, unfortunately, families go places and feel judged or uncomfortable, or a situation arises where a child might have a meltdown. If any of those things happen in this environment, it’s a completely safe zone and they don’t have to say sorry for something that their child is going through and needs support to get through.
For more information and rates, visit facebook.com/werockthespectrumbuffalosouthtowns
Q. What age range do you serve?
Jessica: We have had babies under 1 in here up to children up to 12 years old who are typically developing. We’ve had individuals with developmental disabilities into their 20s. We’ve had agencies come in with older individuals and they’ll be able to use the facility on a scheduled time and date (after hours or Monday morning). I run a social teen group once a month after hours for middle and high school kids who want to use the facility without the 2-year-olds running around. We have a pizza party and do some social skills. It’s a great opportunity for kids to create peer friendships and relationships, develop communication skills.
Retired pre-K teacher Nita Yusick, of Lakeview, helps her granddaughter Livi Dollmann, 18 months. “We’ve been coming here for more than six months and she’s become more social, braver. Everytime we come, she’s on a new piece of equipment. She’s not inhibited with the crowd anymore. She has some friends who’ve become consistent in the class. There have been special kids who have been here and that’s a good exposure for everybody.”
Q. What is the percentage range of child visitors with special needs?
Jessica: It’s 50/50, which is exactly where we want it. It allows us to teach other children, and their parents, about children with special needs. We work a lot on compassion, advocacy, patience, tolerance and working together as a team.
Q. What do typically developing children and those with special needs receive from the interaction?
Jessica: All receive the same thing: sensory input, whatever kind they need. Helping them regulate their systems. Maybe they need something to help calm themselves, maybe they need something to help stimulate them.
I’ve seen kids go do what they need to do. They go to the equipment they need for their system whether it be jumping on the trampoline or spinning on one of the swings. When they’re done with that they might go into the calming room and sit down for a while and relax. They don’t need someone to tell them what to do.
Q. What’s the calming room?
Jessica: When I talked to a lot of my families, they said, “My child has a meltdown and we feel immediately like we have to leave because there’s nowhere for us to escape to in the facility.” So for us, it was crucial to build that room. We wanted a place for a child to regroup before the family felt like they had to leave. Nine times out of 10, they’re able to go in there, calm down, relax, use some fidget toys or get some sensory or tactile input. All of a sudden they say, “I can go now.”
Q. What has been the reaction from parents?
Jessica: We have a lot of parents come in here and get very emotional reading the sign that describes the gym. They get it right away. It hits home. We’ve had such great support and feedback, beyond our wildest dreams. This entire place was put together by volunteers. Last summer, when we built it, people we work with in the school and local community members came together.
We have a nonprofit called My Brother Rocks the Spectrum. We do a fundraiser once a month for it … and we raise money for a scholarship fund for kids who can’t afford to come to the gym. It’s a great thing and allows the community to come together at the gym. One month, Jeff did a yoga class for moms and we made green smoothies for them afterward.
Q. Why did you decide to expand into the Northtowns and how will that work in terms of staffing and programs?
Jessica: Every weekend, starting with the grand opening here in Derby, we have had people coming from the Northtowns – from Grand Island, from Niagara Falls, from Lewiston – and every weekend, they say, “Can you please open one closer to my house?” It was in our plans and Jeff was off for the summer, so we decided, “Let’s get to it.”
The families have been so supportive. Volunteers helped build our new gym in the Northtowns, too, and we are 100-percent staffed by volunteers at both locations. This is very emotional for me because I can’t even believe this support. We get a lot of college students from therapeutic-related fields and we get a lot of teachers who volunteer while they’re off for the summer and after school. High school kids who need volunteer hours will come out and help us out for a couple of hours on the weekend. We have some parents and stay-at-home moms. Everyone does one day a week for a few hours and that means the world to Jeff and me.
Q. What have they told you about the impact this has had on their children?
Jessica: They have seen such a huge difference in their child’s ability to find what they need here and at home.
Q. What does the future hold for the gyms and for you and your family?
Jeffrey: We plan to keep doing what we’re doing and living one day at a time. We plan to raise our kids here in Derby – and in the gym – having fun every day.
Scanlon, Scott. “New gyms in Clarence, Derby cater to all kids – including those with special needs.” Buffalo News, 12 Aug. 2016, http://buffalonews.com/2016/08/12/gym-in-derby-caters-to-kids-with-autism-other-special-needs-2/. Accessed 16, Dec. 2016.
Parent Network of WNY has a Recreation and Leisure Services Directory for individuals of all ages with disabilities/special needs: