Many of you can attest to the realities of raising a child with special needs. From birth on through adulthood, there are unique challenges and joys that accompany being a family with a special needs child (or children). Every child with special needs is unique – specific needs vary greatly, and resources can be thin. However, there are people in our community who seek to alleviate some of the stresses experienced by parents of children with special needs.
One such hero is Anthony Dunford. Mr. Anthony (as he is known to the kids) organizes and executes a weekly open gym specifically for families with children who have special needs. Every Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., you can find Anthony at Gymnastics World – playing with each child, encouraging parents, celebrating everyone’s unique needs, and providing a place of peace for families.
“Every Sunday, we’re here. If Christmas falls on a Sunday, we’re here. We never miss a Sunday for any reason,” Anthony stressed to me the first time I visited the open gym time. “All are welcome,” Anthony said. “Any family member – along with their special needs child – can attend the open gym free of charge. Parents need to keep an eye on their children, but the children can roam free. Families without special needs kids can come, too, although we require a donation to help with some of the costs.”
My husband and I took our two-year-old daughter to play one Sunday morning. We arrived to find Anthony running around, encouraging play amongst attendees, talking with parents, connecting with children, jumping and exuberant beyond belief. Anthony’s joy is contagious, and his energy level infuses the entire gym area with excitement. As my husband took my daughter off to explore the bounce house, I had a chance to talk with some of the parents about why they attend Sunday open gym, and what Anthony means to their children.
The children and parents obviously love Anthony and share a deep appreciation for his program. “I can’t say enough about Anthony,” shared Doug Sharpe. “He doesn’t get paid for this – he does it out of an open heart. My son (Jack, who has Down syndrome) gets so much out of this environment. He experiences independence here. The parents get to network with one another and share resources.”
Many parents had similar thoughts. “He’s really good with the kids,” another dad told me. “The things he does are amazing. It’s so fun to watch. I think he’s part baboon! And the kids trust him.” Lisa Ji, one of the volunteers who helps Anthony run the open gym, shared, “I’ve been friends with Anthony for 15 years, and I’m here every week because the kids and their parents are amazing! Not every family who attends this open gym has a child with special needs. The children get to learn from and interact with each other.”
Another mom, who asked that she and her son remain anonymous, said “My son has free reign here. He bounces with abandon. He woke me up at 5:00 a.m. this morning, so excited to come here. The Sunday open gym gives my son something to look forward to. I wish there were more really safe, fun things for him.”
Anthony “does so much,” she said. “He has this incredible bond with the kids. People like him deserve all the accolades – all the recognition. There’s no reason that he does this, other than pure selflessness.”
During the week, Anthony teaches science part-time in Collier and Lee counties. He offers a menu of interactive classes designed for pre-K and elementary environments. He also provides programs for children’s birthday parties as well. But on Sundays – every Sunday – you can find him at Gymnastics World.
Why does Anthony run this program, and how did it get started? He has a deep love for families with children who have special needs. “I got into this because I saw a need,” he said. “I was teaching classes at Gymnastics World, and parents with special needs kids would ask me for private lessons. One mom suggested an open gym for special needs kids and their families. And I’ve been doing it for the past 15 years.”
Anthony continued, “The owners (Cory and Carol Mango) donate the space and give us whatever we need. Any monetary donations we collect go toward the electric bill here, keeping the lights and A/C on.”
I asked Anthony what motivates him to coordinate the program week after week as a volunteer, and with such a consistency. He explained, “Special needs families are stressed out to the max. There are not a lot of places for them to go where they don’t have to worry. This is a totally peaceful place free from judgement and worry. There’s nothing sacred here – nothing is off limits. These families have experienced it all. The children here learn through play and discipline, and the kids work out normal childhood drama.” His motivation is creating a place of peace for families. “This is my church,” Anthony shared. “I need this. These families manage to get up every day and make it happen. I can do the same for them on Sunday mornings.”
Children with special needs, parents, and siblings can attend open gym on Sundays at Gymnastics World, at 2187 Trade Center Way in Naples from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. free of charge. For those families who would like to attend, but who don’t have children with special needs, a donation is required.