Taking a LEAP
About five years ago, Lauren Petrick faced a choice: continue teaching competitive gymnastics, or leave her employer to pursue her passion of supporting individuals with special needs.
“It’s scary to let go of a stable job and income to start something completely new, even when you know it’s the right path for you,” she explained.
Lauren went with her gut and set out to open LEAP South Florida (LEAP stands for Learning Enriched Athletic Programs). She needed more capital to buy equipment, like safety mats and a trampoline, but learned that as an early-stage business her request didn’t qualify for a bank loan. Thankfully, Lauren’s banker believed in her vision and referred her to Accion. “It gave me faith that someone who wasn’t involved could see the potential in what we were doing, and it was that stepping stone we needed to get to where we are today,” she said.
Opening LEAP South Florida allowed Lauren to grow the small exercise class she conducted in her spare time into a thriving, fun environment that supports more than 75 special needs athletes and their families. She employs three team members and works with several volunteers from the community, including siblings of LEAP athletes. “When I think about my time as a competitive coach, and the sense of achievement it brought me, it doesn’t come close to the feeling of helping a person overcome physical, social, behavioral and emotional challenges to develop the skills and muscles needed to be active like every person should be,” Lauren said.
Finding a second home
Lauren considers LEAP her second home, adding that the athletes she works with and their families are like an extension of her own family. “I could stay behind the computer all day running the business and be completely exhausted,” she said. “But the moment my athletes come through the door and we start working out and training, it’s like a second wind that keeps me going throughout the day.”
Lauren shared the story of one of her athletes, who is nonverbal. Three years ago Lauren started working with him in one-on-one classes because he couldn’t work independently. Now 18, he’s competing in gymnastics competitions. “He’ll walk by his teammates and give them high fives, or he’ll do something in the gym and he knows that he did it right, and you’ll just see this big smile across his face. That’s his way of communicating with us,” said Lauren.
But the benefits of LEAP’s programming extend beyond the athletes themselves. “It gives parents hope that the stereotypes that have been placed on individuals with special needs can be shattered,” Lauren explained.
Leading a movement
Lauren’s accomplishments in advancing special needs athletics aren’t limited to the business. While she was working as a professional gymnastics coach she learned that the gymnastics program for Special Olympics Miami-Dade County was inactive, so she volunteered to reinstate and oversee it. She continues to run the program, which now has about 100 participating athletes. Next year, Lauren will be traveling to Seattle for the Special Olympics USA Games as Team Florida’s gymnastics head coach with four of her athletes from LEAP.
Lauren also started the LEAPlete Foundation, which helps provide families with affordable athletic opportunities as an alternative to the standard therapy, including private classes or group sports programs that incur greater costs. For example, in 2016 the Foundation enabled Lauren to start a special needs competitive cheerleading program, which provided all the necessities of a typical cheerleading program, from trainings to uniforms. Through cheerleading, athletes were given the opportunity to not only participate in all-star cheerleading competitions across Florida, but also to build their teamwork, social skills, confidence and self-esteem. “They went out on the floor and performed their routine just like any other cheerleading team,” Lauren remembered. “They did tumbling, stunts, jumps and dance, and it was a really cool experience to see the program develop the way it has.”
The LEAPlete Foundation also works to bring awareness to the community about special needs athletics and need for the inclusion of individuals with special needs. “The impact that we’ve made within the special needs community is beyond what I ever thought it would be,” said Lauren, adding that their work isn’t finished. “I would like to see our inclusion program grow, and for the community as a whole to begin to stop stereotyping kids and adults with special needs and see them as equals.”