Charles DeFrancesco Aims to Forge a Fitness Path for All Abilities
Backyard Sports Cares caught up with Charles DeFrancesco, a certified personal trainer and owner of the Arena, a personal training facility located in White Plains. Charles recently launched a new program called Fit 4 Fun to provide kids with special needs a place to go for physical activity. His one-to-one training with children who share a variety of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, has led to the creation of a group fitness program, which he believes will create greater socialization opportunities for children and adolescents.
Fit 4 Fun trainers donate their time to warm-up special needs athletes participating in Backyard Sports Cares Special Needs Sports Program on Sundays at Purchase College.
LISTEN to our interview with Charles DeFrancesco, founder, Fit 4 Fun
Backyard Sports Cares: So tell us a little bit about what Fit4Fun is and how you got started. I understand you have a little announcement to make.
Charles DeFrancesco: Yes. We’re starting group fitness classes for kids with special needs. The one on one is taking off, so we wanted to expand that program to families who may not have the funds for individual training and also want more socialization for their child.
Just to give you some history, my son Antonio was diagnosed with autism at about 18 months old. Our mission started when I began working Antonio out. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a child that couldn’t participate. I knew physical activity would make him more likely to play sports and to do things with the other children. In fact, through this exercise, Antonio actually started talking. Prior to this regimen, he was considered non-verbal. Once I saw that he was speaking more, I started increasing the exercise, and it actually created an environment where he would interact. He loved it so much that I thought, hey, he can’t be the only special needs child that would benefit from this.
If I could get other people to understand how to work with their children, this would be a great thing. As we know, the first thing that special needs children are excused from is gym class and sports. And that’s the most important thing. A lot of times I see other kids that have special needs, they don’t join gym class, they’re outside at recess sitting by themselves. Some schools are very good about making kids interact, but other schools … people are people and they just go through their day.
So the last thing I wanted was for my kid to be that child, and I feel that if I can help my son, maybe I can help other people’s children through sports and exercise — activity that gets them to feel good about themselves physically, and actually enhances motor skills. Physical activity is the last thing they should be excused from. It regulates them, helps with their stimming, there are so many benefits I can’t even begin to express them to you.
BYSC: You told me a little story that was pretty revealing before we started the interview. Through your own rigorous workouts with your son, you found that he didn’t want to jump because he didn’t like the way it felt when he landed. That was an epiphany for you, right?
Charles: Oh, absolutely. We were trying to figure out what was going on, because at the time he was probably close to three. He wasn’t jumping, he wasn’t really running, so I made my backyard into a trampoline. I put this huge trampoline back there and I started getting him to jump. What I would do is, when I would have him in the house, I would pick him up and drop him, and make him land, hoping that he would jump back up. And he would look at me with this really sour little face. And I figured out that he didn’t like the way it felt when his feet landed on the ground.
So I started to make him land, then I would tickle him. I tried to get him to associate that feeling with something positive. Now he jumps, he’s like a jumping bean. He’s all over the house, jumping from one place to the next. His playroom is all bean bags and padded because he literally dives across the room, so we have to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.
BYSC: I know you run this program at the Arena, the gym that you own, right? So this program will be right alongside other programs that typical people are participating in, correct? So right now you’re doing the one on one, and you’re going to be shortly launching this group activity?
Charles: Yes, the only reason we haven’t launched the group yet is because we need more interns. We’re looking to do it in a different way. Doing the one on one is not in everybody’s budget, so doing it in a group, we can charge much less and you get everybody in. Also, a lot of our one on one children would benefit from the group, because it’s more social. There’s a greater social component when you have a group program and kids kind of feed off each other. So one kid’s accomplishment can lead to another’s.
BYSC: How did you get connected with Backyard Sports Cares?
Charles: My partner Denise has two boys who have been volunteering for BYSC since 2016. When we started putting together a list of all the programs in the area that we wanted to contact about Fit 4 Fun, BYSC was up top. After reaching out to Danny Bernstein at BYSC, we really connected because there was synergy in our philosophy. Currently, either myself or another Fit 4 Fun trainer conducts warm-ups for BYSC’s Sunday Special Needs Programs at 10 am and 11 am. We donate that time to Backyard Sports Cares. It’s a great way to get the kids interacting with somebody else, and it’s just a different angle because it’s more fitness related. And that’s what athletes do, they warm up before they play sports. So why shouldn’t these kids?
There’s a big misconception about training children with special needs. It’s the same thing as training anyone else. It’s just a matter of how you get them to execute the activity or exercise. It’s the communication that’s different. It’s just like a typical client that may have poor balance and falls over when they stand on one foot. If a kid with special needs has poor balance, you’ve got to work them out in the same way. You’ll have them practice the same things. Now obviously there’s limitations. You’re going to have to make accommodations, but for the most part, you’re doing the same stuff, it’s just a different way of communicating it, because they understand things differently than typical children do.
BYSC: So what’s your long-term goal? What do you want to accomplish, what do you want to change?
Charles: I want to change the limiting custom of children with special needs not participating in physical activities. I’ve gone to kids’ birthday parties, and I see them on the jungle gyms, Tumble Jungle, Kids U, and all the kids are running around, but there’s never anything specific for children with special needs. One of the big things my wife and I have found is there are not many programs for kids at all. And fitness, nothing. I started training Antonio myself just because I’m a personal trainer. But if I wasn’t a personal trainer, I wouldn’t have known to do this.
BYSC: For folks that are interested in either getting involved, checking out your program, what should they do? Where should they go?
Charles: We have a website. It’s called Fit4FunAll.com. It tells you what we’re doing, it has pictures and videos, and basically, our goal is to give every child the opportunity to exercise. Our tagline is, “Forging a Path for All Abilities”. We want children of all abilities to be able to play. I’ve trained kids in wheelchairs. You can find a way if you want to.