Jessica and Jeffrey Sills have walked similar paths since their days as high school sweethearts.
They graduated together from Lake Shore High School, married and blazed careers working with children – Jeffrey as a physical education teacher at John T. Waugh Elementary School, Jessica as a speech-language pathologist who provided home visits for Erie 2 BOCES and the Lake Shore school district.
The Derby couple, both 33, became vegans together, had two daughters – Camila, 4, and Olivia, 3 – then turned their attention toward what they’d discovered on the job was a community need: a gym for all kids, regardless of their needs.
Jeffrey found what they sought as the two starting planning the business: We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gym, a Tarzana, Calif.-based franchise founded and owned by Dina Kimmel, who has a son with autism. They opened their first gym last September at 6950 Erie Road in their hometown. They recently opened their second in the Valu Home Center plaza at 5427 Transit Road in Clarence.
“People will come to us and ask, ‘Do you have a child with autism?’ We don’t but we know so many kids with autism and special needs that have touched our lives since we started our careers,” Jessica Sills said. “That is exactly what drove us to do this. We feel blessed in our lives and really wanted to give back to the community.”
Q. Is the equipment the same at both gyms?
Jessica: When you purchase a franchise, there are 10 pieces of required equipment: a trampoline, hammock swings, carpet swings, tunnels, a bolster swing, zipline, climbing structures. On top of that, Jeff and I talked with OTs and PTs we’ve worked with in the community to say, “What else would be great to have here at the kids gym?”
Jeffrey: The 10 pieces of required equipment are the same at both locations but some of the swings are different for families that come to both. We can move things around a little bit, too. The Rock Shop Store, with Melissa & Doug functional toys, are in both gyms.
Q. What are some of the special needs that you’ve seen?
Jessica: Everything from autism to sensory processing disorder, Down syndrome, children with ADHD or ADD, children with cerebral palsy and children with speech and language impairments.
Q. What is the dynamic here that really impresses you?
Jeffrey: You give children some freedom and see what they can do with the equipment on their own, it’s pretty impressive. When they come in the first time, they’re shy and timid for the most part, but even an hour into their first visit, when they’re going down the zipline, their parents are going, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.”
Q. What age range do you serve?
Jessica: We have had babies under 1 in here up to children up to 12 years old who are typically developing. We’ve had individuals with developmental disabilities into their 20s. We’ve had agencies come in with older individuals and they’ll be able to use the facility on a scheduled time and date (after hours or Monday morning). I run a social teen group once a month after hours for middle and high school kids who want to use the facility without the 2-year-olds running around.
Q. What is the percentage range of child visitors with special needs?
Jessica: It’s 50/50, which is exactly where we want it. It allows us to teach other children, and their parents, about children with special needs. We work a lot on compassion, advocacy, patience, tolerance and working together as a team.
Q. What has been the reaction from parents?
Jessica: We have a lot of parents come in here and get very emotional reading the sign that describes the gym. They get it right away. It hits home. We’ve had such great support and feedback, beyond our wildest dreams. This entire place was put together by volunteers. Last summer, when we built it, people we work with in the school and local community members came together.
Q. Why did you decide to expand into the Northtowns and how will that work in terms of staffing and programs?
Jessica: Every weekend, starting with the grand opening here in Derby, we have had people coming from the Northtowns, and every weekend, they say, “Can you please open one closer to my house?” It was in our plans and Jeff was off for the summer, so we decided, “Let’s get to it.”
The families have been so supportive. Volunteers helped build our new gym in the Northtowns, too, and we are 100-percent staffed by volunteers at both locations. This is very emotional for me because I can’t even believe this support. We get a lot of college students from therapeutic-related fields and we get a lot of teachers who volunteer while they’re off for the summer and after school. High school kids who need volunteer hours will come out and help us out for a couple of hours on the weekend. We have some parents and stay-at-home moms. Everyone does one day a week for a few hours and that means the world to Jeff and me.
Q. What does the future hold for the gyms and for you and your family?
Jeffrey: We plan to keep doing what we’re doing and living one day at a time. We plan to raise our kids here in Derby – and in the gym – having fun every day.
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