What if the words “I can’t” disappeared from your child’s vocabulary? What if they said “I can play soccer” or “I can swim” regardless of any physical or developmental challenge? If you think that’s impossible, just look at what is happening at the new Schafer Sports Center on Graphics Drive in Ewing.
President and COO Shannon Schafer believes that it is the art of the possible that allows everyone to participate in any activity they choose. “Parents dearly want their children to be able to try anything, be anything they want to, in spite of any challenges they may have. Participation is key to expanding mind and body, and people with special needs are no different,” Schafer says.
“Facilities geared to address those needs and trainers who are leaders in their fields are not generally available at sports facilities. Because of this, we wanted our new location to be expansive and inclusive; to provide the same high level of training to everyone.”
Schafer believes that sports are an avenue for building confidence, strength, and independence, as well as emotional, behavioral, and social skills. “We provide life lessons for everyone who comes to us. Each child gets to see how the others accomplish their personal goals. I evaluate each child living with a disability and create an individualized program to grow skills needed while participating in a chosen sport.”
Schafer trains the Special Olympics team and provides one-on-one training. “All my experience provides the basis for my passion for helping special needs athletes achieve their personal best. I expect the same level of commitment and grit from every participant. There are no excuses here,” Schafer says with a smile.
Her experience working with special needs children dates back to her early years at Schafer Gymnastics. “A parent had a child on the (autism) spectrum,” she said in an interview last year with the Ewing Observer. “The mother had been told that her son would never talk, run, and jump, and she wanted him to be part of an activity. I didn’t know how it would work, but I decided I would give it a good try.”
“From that point on I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “The mom saw the transformation and came in smiling with tears of joy. It is something I want to see for the parents of special needs and for the kids. They understand what we are saying. They feel they can’t verbalize and get it out so we have to figure out how to get in and recognize they are in there and have to work a little differently to get it out.”
The state-of-the-art 38,000-square-foot facility — where Schafer relocated in 2016 from a 8,500-square-foot space in Lawrenceville — includes a turf field available for teams to rent, two party rooms, a cafe, a dance studio, a warm-water swimming pool, and elite gymnastics equipment. More than 250 weekly classes and 3,000 children of all abilities participate in gymnastics, swimming, soccer, dance, lacrosse, and flag football.
The gymnastics program includes boys’ and girls’ classes and teams, parent-child classes for toddlers, tumbling for ages 7 to 18, and trampoline for ages 9 to 18. Dance classes in a variety of styles are offered through the Dance Network.
In partnership with Phenoms Soccer, Schafer offers soccer programs for players of any level, ages 3 and up. Clinics on soccer and lacrosse are also offered.
Schafer Sports Center also offers parties for ages 3 to 12 on weekends, featuring either gymnastics or swimming plus snacks and cake in a private party room.
“Schafer Sports is all about education,” says CEO Jonathan Schafer. “Our goal is to build kids’ self-esteem and instill that learning is fun.” Schafer has developed a gymnastics curriculum based on 38 years of experience. At the College of New Jersey, he developed the curriculum for physical education majors, ensuring a focus on understanding fundamental movement. He has coached nationally and internationally.
Jonathan Schafer was himself a late comer to gymnastics. After spending 10th grade on a kibbutz in Israel, where he watched his roommate start each day with a series of sit-ups and push-ups, he took up gymnastics in 11th grade. He then attended the University of Delaware for two years before finishing his degree in dance at Temple University. After a brief stint as a professional dancer in Philadelphia he started coaching gymnastics, ultimately opening Schafer Gymnastics in 1988.
Shannon Schafer, meanwhile, grew up in South Carolina and graduated from South Carolina State, but eventually moved to New Jersey, where her grandmother lived. After realizing that a corporate career was not for her, she became a fitness trainer and aerobics instructor in the 1990s and met Jonathan at a Gold’s Gym in 1997. The Pennington residents are now married with two school-age sons.
And Schafer Sports Center is also about families. Capital Health Systems now partners with Schafer Sports to offer free infant-parent classes that are delivered through the hospital.
Schafer Sports Center is a hub for adults as well as children. Seniors have aqua fitness programs held in the pool that offers a soothing 90 degree water temperature. The warm water, as well as the warm air in the pool and changing areas, keeps participants warm and focused rather than shivering through the lesson. Parents can participate with their child in the tot and preschool classes.
And parents’ social lives are not ignored. Parents’ Night Out gives mom and dad the opportunity to have a relaxing night sans kids. The children have an amazing night in at Schafer Sports. They enjoy gymnastics, relay races, trapeze, trampoline, pizza dinner, and group games.
Just when you think you can’t do something, think again. Then head to the Schafer Sports Center and start doing it.
Schafer Sports Center, 5 Graphics Drive, Ewing. 609-393-5855. www.schafersports.com.