This summer, Egg Harbor Township resident Jena Johns attended the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Seminar at Monmouth University, where she was inspired to do something for her community.
A friend of Jena at the seminar had shared with her the story of her sister, who has Down syndrome and has few activities available to her. Jena, a decorated gymnast who trains at Jersey Shore Gymnastics Academy, had an idea.
"She isn't allowed to do things like go to gymnastics or go to play tennis," said Jena, 16. "I decided maybe we could dedicate a day to them."
On Sept. 14, Jersey Shore Gymnastics Academy will host Flipping with Friends, an open gym for kids with special needs.
Activities offered at the event will include circuits, trampolines, the tumble track and pits, and kids who take part will be under strict supervision of gym staff. In addition to the activities in the gym, there will be concession stands and games, the proceeds from which will go to a charity to be determined. Admission to the event is free, but attendees are encouraged to donate.
Jacqui Strickland, owner of the school, was on board with the idea as soon as Jena approached her with it. Strickland previously worked at the American Gymnastics Academy in Edison, which offered a structured gymnastics program for kids with special needs.
Jersey Shore offered a special needs gymnastics class prior to her arrival last June, Strickland said, but its instructors lacked certifications in teaching special needs. Strickland hopes to revive the program, but says she'll need a qualified instructor to do so.
"They just didn't know what they were doing," Strickland said. "They didn't know how to handle certain kids and their disabilities. I would never start one unless I had a certified person."
Last June, Strickland was named facility director and head team coach at Jersey Shore, then known as Zappa Athletics Center. The school was in need of significant renovations and had a poor reputation, Strickland said, leading the previous owners to sell, and this June she bought the property.
Since taking over as facility director last year, Strickland has brought an increased emphasis on competitions, and the school now boasts three state champions and one regional champion. Now that she owns the property, Strickland also has started repairs.
While the school has some holdovers from previous ownership, Strickland is trying to get the word out about the new-and-improved facility. The Sept. 14 event has generated buzz, she said, and she hopes it will raise the stature of the school and help her make the connections necessary to create a regular special needs program.
"A lot of people have been interested in it, asking about it," Strickland said. "Hopefully, this will open the door."
Contact Braden Campbell:
If you go
Flipping with Friends at Jersey Shore Gymnastics Academy
1-3 p.m. Sept. 14
Jersey Shore Gymnastics Academy, 5101 Oakwood Blvd., Mays Landing
Free, but donations accepted
See jerseyshoregymnasticsacademy.com or call 609-829-2184