by Hanna McGrath
Susan Lacy has volunteered with many organizations in the Richmond area, but volunteering with River City Inclusive Gymnastics (RCIG) is a very different kind of experience. For the better part of a year, she has been assisting Coaches Mike McGrath and Fletcher Hamblen with kids’ classes that meet on Saturdays at River City Fitness in Manakin-Sabot. “It’s a hands-on experience,” Lacy said. “You just have to jump right in.” On a typical day she might be dragging mats from one side of the expansive gym to the other, lending a shoulder to a balance beam walker, or demonstrating how to crawl under a foam arch at the end of an obstacle course. After two hours, she’s had as much of a work-out as the kids.
Volunteers are a vital component of RCIG. The majority of class time is comprised of negotiating obstacle courses – which change every ten to fifteen minutes – and there are lots of moving parts. Two to five volunteers aid each Saturday class and assist with the movement of gym equipment and ensuring the safety of class participants on each obstacle. As well, volunteers demonstrate how to move through obstacles and provide encouragement and support to participants. “They are what help keep classes running smoothly,” McGrath said about volunteers.
As an architect, knowledge of the adaptations necessary for people with special needs is crucial to Lacy’s job. However, she has gained a new respect for the actual physical challenges that those with special needs face since working with the kids at RCIG. Lacy said that this new understanding has changed the way she thinks about the spaces she designs. “I’m no longer designing for theoretical people with disabilities – I’m designing for people I know.”
Since April of 2016, when she began volunteering, the program has grown from one kids’ class to five and two classes for young adults. Lacy loves that she has witnessed RCIG flourish. Part of this growth, she thinks, has to do with the way the program is designed. By changing obstacle course activities numerous times throughout a class, participants are constantly challenged and encouraged to try new things, while also building on skills from one week to the next. New equipment, like the rock wall added to the gym last fall, also keep participants engaged and excited.
Lacy’s favorite part of volunteering is that she gets to play a part in enabling kids to do “everyday kid things”. Her late-husband, Allen, battled cancer as a boy and she thinks of his childhood often. “He didn’t get to have a typical childhood,” she explained. “There were times in his childhood when he wasn’t able to be physical, to run around.” RCIG provides this opportunity to its participants, in a safe and supportive environment . She appreciates, too, that RCIG welcomes children and young adults with and without special needs. This allows siblings or friends to be in classes together. She likes that gymnastics is a positive experience they get to share with each other.
Lacy said that she “gets to see progress,” each week. Progress is as different as each kid enrolled in RCIG. It could mean learning to stand alone on a balance beam, jumping into the foam pit, or, simply, coming into the gym for the first time. RCIG has taught her how to spot these small moments of progress and recognize their importance and the subsequent joy that come with them.
For more information about River City Inclusive Gymnastics visit their website: www.rcig.org