Ricardo Cunningham remembers seeing his aunt struggle in school. Only a year older than him, she had Down Syndrome and often had trouble with her gross motor skills and with socially connecting with other children.
After studying health fitness and recreation research at George Mason University, Cunningham decided that he wanted to help kids who are like his aunt, so he opened Life Changing Fitness (LCF) Kids, an adaptive children’s fitness center, in 2011.
Now with locations in Falls Church and Ashburn, LCF Kids develops children’s physical and social skills through therapy, exercise programs and training. The goal is to give kids with disabilities a safe, fun place to practice different skills so that they feel more comfortable when interacting with their able-bodied peers.
“It’s just been a passion of mine. I want to make a difference,” Cunningham said. “We [want to make] sure that the child will be confident with these skills and can take it outside of our gym and apply it when they’re in school or even when they’re in the community, playing with their friends.”
Designed for people as young as 2 or 3 years old and as old as 21 years old, LCF Kids offers an open gym, therapeutic exercise, weight management, and social, motor and athletics skills development programs. There are also workshops, classes, and winter, spring and fall camps.
The open gym provides a structured environment for parents and trainers to assist children using equipment that is designed to help improve specific skills, such as coordination, memory, and lower and upper body strength. Available equipment includes a climbing wall, a trampoline, and a Trazer, which elevates the user’s metabolic rate by simulating sports and other athletic activities.
Because trainers work with participants one-on-one, the specific routine for each child varies depending on their particular needs. For example, some of the children are nonverbal, so Cunningham and the other instructors need to use visual cues to help them, and they also work with a lot of kids with behavioral problems.
“The truth is there are a lot of programs that minimize children with behavior problems, but my goal is for the child to have fun and also learn how to improve their behavior, rather than turning that child away,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham says that LCF Kids accepts all participants regardless of the specific physical, cognitive or developmental disability they might have. However, the ability to walk is a requirement so that the children can engage in activities centered on gross motor skills, which are larger movements made by the legs, arms, feet or entire body, such as running or jumping.
After giving the children an assessment to determine which skills they need to focus on, trainers work with parents to create development plans for their kids, addressing everything from motor planning and balance to cognition, visual and spatial abilities, and cardiovascular fitness and strength.
These services aren’t free, however. Membership includes free access to workshops and open gym sessions as well as discounts for group classes, individual sessions and camps, and it costs $49 to $69 per month depending on how many children the family has. Non-members have to pay $20 to use the open gym.
Recognizing that many people can’t afford to attend at those prices, the program introduced the LCF Kids Scholarship Foundation in 2015. The scholarships cover all costs, depending on a family’s income, and the foundation gave out 20 scholarships over the summer as well as six more during the fall. People can apply for a scholarship through the LCF Kids website.
Improving the accessibility of LCF Kids is one of Cunningham’s main goals. In addition to offering the scholarships, he is working on expanding the program’s geographical reach by posting videos that give parents instructions on YouTube, using social media, and writing the books Adaptive Fitness and Gross Motor Development and How to Ride a Bike in 24 Hours.
He says he’s working on turning the program into a franchise, where other people can open their own branches across the country, and he hopes that LCF Kids will eventually have a presence in every state.
“There are kids with disabilities all over, and I think our program is so unique,” Cunningham said. “We’ve now provided programs that people can access no matter where they are, compared to two years ago, when we didn’t have this information out to the public.”
While LCF Kids can teach children specific skills and build up their confidence, the program’s ultimate aim is to help them become integrated with the larger community, but this can only be possible if able-bodied people (or “mainstream” people, as Cunningham calls people without a disability) make an effort to make those with disabilities feel included.
To facilitate this process, LCF Kids offers free workshops to parents so that they can work on the skills taught by the program with their children at home. Though Cunningham says the program is predominantly for kids with disabilities, mainstream children are allowed to participate, including through group classes that teach them how to work with their disabled siblings.
Cunningham argues that schools are also vital to helping disabled children feel accepted and that physical education classes should find ways to get mainstream and disabled kids to interact with each other.
“A lot of children with disabilities from a movement and gross motor skill side are just as athletic as mainstream children,” said Cunningham, who previously worked with mainstream children as a P.E. teacher. “The same fundamental skills that I taught to mainstream physical kids were the same skills I taught to kids with disabilities. They both learn it, but they learn it differently… My goal is to get everyone involved, [because] when we work together as a unit, the children will benefit more.”