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Kokua Spotlight: Special Needs/Adaptive Gymnastics

In order to help our members find useful resources within the community, we will occasionally use this blog space to highlight organizations and individuals that are working to make a difference in the lives of individuals with special needs.

In this first installment of our Kokua Spotlight series, we are featuring a Special Needs/Adaptive Gymnastics program at the West Chester Area YMCA Youth Program Center in West Chester, PA. We discussed the program with its founder, Donna Watters, who is the Gymnastics and Dance Director for the YMCA.

Donna has been teaching gymnastics through the YMCA since 1982. She directs programs for gymnasts aged 18 months to 18 years, including instructional classes, competitive teams, and specialty programs such as recreational gymnastics, tumbling/acrobatics, and special needs/adaptive gymnastics.

The special needs gymnastics program was a longtime dream of Donna’s, whose cousin had been a Special Olympian. In addition, one of the gymnastics program coaches, Heather Jones, has a sister who was a gymnast in the Special Olympics. Donna and Heather wanted to start a program specifically for special needs gymnasts at the West Chester YMCA, and the opportunity came when the YMCA challenged directors to come up with ideas for new programs. The top idea would be awarded a seed grant. Their idea won, and they were awarded the grant. The first session of the Special Needs/Adaptive Gymnastics program was in the Fall of 2013.

The class benefits from a very small student-teacher ratio. Typically, there is one teacher for two students, but sometimes the ratio has been one-to-one or one-to-three, depending on the level of student need.

The instructors are chosen because of their own educational, personal, and career backgrounds. Donna’s description of her coaching staff reflects her pride in their diverse backgrounds, “Miss Jen is a Phys. Ed/ Special Ed graduate of Penn State and had past experience working with her mother teaching special needs exercise classes. Miss Haley will be graduating in December with her degree in Special Education. Miss Heather is graduating this weekend with her degree in occupational therapy and had been a long time Special Olympics coach at the Hatboro Y,” she explains. She also noted that Heather also has a sister who is a special needs gymnast.

According to Donna, “much of what the staff has learned is that it’s a week-to-week, student-to-student learning experience,” and that although the coaching staff has plenty of textbook knowledge, “this experience has taught them as much or more than learning in the classroom.”

Prior to beginning this program, Donna and the other coaches worked with many special needs children in the Y’s other gymnastics programs. Those experiences are part of the inspiration behind the special needs program. When discussing the special needs students in those classes, she says, “they have done well and the coaches have really enjoyed it, but we wanted to be able to spend more time with them to make sure they were getting everything they needed.” Donna acknowledges the value of inclusion programs while still advocating for the importance of adaptive programing as a place where those kids “could really shine” when given “the opportunity to reach their full potential” with specialized instruction.

In particular, she feels that the Y’s special needs/adaptive program has fostered friendships and a sense of community among the participants, saying, “The greatest accomplishment has been watching them become a team. The low ratio allows them do their own thing or go their own way. But the goal was to get them to become a small group and to travel to each piece of equipment together. This began happening midway through this year and it was such a sense of accomplishment for the coaches.” She has also observed another important component of teamwork: “I’ve also seen the children start to take ownership of their program and I have seen some of them providing a little leadership to the others…they listen to each other and trust each other.”

Donna says that the program has been received very well and that the Y branch has been supportive of the small program. “I warned them that because of the very small nature of the class, the rewards and benefits may not seem huge, but they have learned that everything that happens in that class is huge and that we enjoy celebrating every success.”

Donna concludes, “We love having this program and would really like to see it grow…We also want to thank the dedicated students and their parents who began this with us and have really helped us to learn and grow!”


The Special Needs/Adaptive Gymnastics Program featured here is offered at the YMCA of Greater Brandywine’s Oscar Lasko Youth Program Center in West Chester, PA. For more information, or to register for the program, contact Donna using the information below:

Donna Watters
Gymnastics and Dance Director
Oscar Lasko Youth Program Center
1 E Chestnut Street
West Chester, PA 19380
610-696-YMCA (9622) ext 2802


Posted in : Blog, Community
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