DPT students in Children on the Go REACH group adapt to new virtual environment

Group photo of Children On the Go REACH group leadership
Children on the Go Leadership Team DPT c/o 2022. Back row (L to R): Sarah Davis, Angelina Castelli, Abigail Jones, Shelby Mahaz. Front row (L to R): KK Huffman, Jeanna Heater, Courtney Hersch.

University of Florida Doctor of Physical Therapy students participate in community engagement activities across the curriculum, providing valuable rehabilitation, injury prevention and wellness service. One of the Rehabilitation Education Activity and Community Health, or REACH, groups is Children on the Go (COTG).

In COTG, DPT students work with gymnasts and athletes with physical or intellectual disabilities at Balance 180, a local non-profit gym. The students teach the athletes foundational skills while improving motor skills and encouraging them to follow instructions.

When COVID-19 hit Gainesville, COTG had to adapt to the now virtual environment. The student directors of the group, second-year DPT students KK Huffman and Angelina Castelli, explain how they were able to continue to work with the athletes at Balance 180.

At the beginning of the pandemic, what challenges did your group run into?

In March, we were given the unfortunate news that Balance 180 would be closing and physical therapy students could not be on campus indefinitely. The COTG REACH group volunteers with Balance 180’s adaptive gymnastics class every Saturday, so we came to the sad realization that we couldn’t meet with the children every week. As the new Co-directors, we quickly took it upon ourselves to reach out to Balance 180 to see how we could help them make their adaptive classes virtual. It was important to us to know that the adaptive athletes could still get physical activity and socialization while staying healthy and safe at home during quarantine.

How did you overcome these challenges, and how did you adapt to the new virtual environment?

From March to July, we had weekly meetings with the amazing team at Balance 180 and our DPT faculty mentors (Dr. Gloria Miller, Dr. Kim Dunleavy, and Dr. Krista Vandenborne), to figure out how we could best assist the adaptive athletes in the Gainesville area. It was really important to us that these children still had an opportunity to be active and have social interaction while they quarantined at home for their own health and safety. We decided to create a few different resources for families, which was later collectively grouped as the  “Movement 4 ALL” initiative.

“Movements 4 ALL” consists of 3 different projects:

  1.  One-on-one Zoom sessions: The purpose of these individualized sessions were to provide specific social support and physical activity to the athletes and their families during quarantine. We, along with the help of SPT volunteers, met with multiple athletes throughout the summer to engage them in various activities that encourage movement.
  2. Virtual Adaptive Gymnastics Classes: In an effort to recreate some normalcy for the families, we organized Adaptive Gymnastics Classes as they would happen at Balance 180 and made them virtual. It has been great to have familiar faces join us and get to welcome new families as well. We have now transitioned the entire Children on the Go REACH group to assist in these virtual sessions and have had great success with them so far. Classes are available to all adaptive athletes on Saturdays afternoons.
  3. Google Classroom Initiative: In an effort to centralize resources for the athletes and their families, we thought it would be great to create a Google Classroom with pictures/videos of gymnastics exercises and familiar dances/cheers that emulated the classes we had prior to the pandemic. This idea turned into a location for so many amazing resources and continues to expand thanks to the help from volunteers from the UF COVID-19 Student Service Corps, and the management of the google classroom by third-year DPT students Kayce Whitbeck and Ashley Tringas.

Are there any advantages of working virtually with your REACH group and your participants?

As a free resource, our Google Classroom and live sessions can impact more than those just living in the Gainesville community, a feature that was not possible prior to this pandemic. We have been able to reconnect with families that have moved away or just wouldn’t have been able to return to the gym due to immunocompromised circumstances. This is the beauty of offering virtual classes and we hope that our efforts continue to draw in as many adaptive athletes as possible!

How many children do you normally work with?

Over the Summer and Spring months, we were consistently interacting with over 10 athletes via our individual and group Zoom sessions.

What’s your favorite part about the COTG REACH group?

Our favorite part about Children on the Go is the ability for our athletes to always brighten our day. Many members of this REACH group have expressed how meaningful our interactions are with our adaptive families. COTG Secretary Shelby Mahaz says: “My favorite part of the COTG REACH group is being a part of the Gainesville community outside of UF’s campus, especially with the youth! Since COVID it’s been great to witness the perseverance of families to keep their children active even during these difficult times.” When given the opportunity to watch our athletes have fun with their friends, push themselves to learn new exercises, and grow with their abilities, it is always guaranteed to put a smile on our face.  

How does it feel to be able to work with the athletes virtually?

We are amazed at the ability of our athletes to adapt to the unique circumstances that the pandemic has brought. While at times having virtual interactions can be overwhelming for some of our athletes, we are always able to regroup and find activities and solutions that work for everyone. Our athletes love to watch the Balance 180 coaches and SPT volunteers engage with them every week! We are just so happy that we get to work with the athletes in some capacity right now and can’t wait until we return to the gym.

How does COTG collaborate with the COVID-19 Student Services Corps?

In order to maintain our strong relationship with the COVID-19 Student Service Corps, we have created two new leadership positions within our REACH group. We are very excited to welcome Jeanna Heater and Courtney Hersch to the leadership team this semester. The main responsibilities of their positions surround the progression of the Google Classroom and inter-professional relations with the COVID-19 Student Service Corps. We appreciate all of the help we have received from this interdisciplinary organization and are excited to continue working with them in the future.

If you have anything else to add, please do!

We are so excited to welcome 25 new first year DPT students to the Children on the Go REACH group this semester! Because of the unique circumstances that this year has presented us with, we needed to come up with ways to introduce the students to our NEW adaptive gymnastics. Our Project Directors, Abigail Jones and Sarah Davis led the creation of our virtual training website that was used to train our first year class, and are currently creating resources for the Return-to-Balance 180 protocol after COVID-19.

If you know of any children who could benefit from the Google Classroom resources or virtual Zoom sessions please encourage them to access the Movement 4 ALL page and sign up for adaptive sessions! https://calendly.com/balance180gym/group-zoom-sessions