Fit Families: Empowering Parents and Children Through Physical Education

When the DeBoers selected the focus for the J. Henry & Martha E. De Boer Fund more than half a century ago, their goal was to help children suffering from vision problems, impaired hearing or kidney disease. They never could have predicted that all these years later their action would produce ripples of influence as far reaching as the shores of India. However, Fit Families has done exactly that.

For Syracuse University professor Dr. Luis Columna, the fund’s parameters were perfectly compatible with a program that came out of his first research project. Children with vision or hearing impairments are often too easily defined by one aspect of their identity: their impairment. This perception is dangerous because it enables the child’s support network to forget there are additional barriers to physical wellness the child will likely experience as a result of their impairment. In reality, physical activity is a main priority for children with disabilities, not something they should be discounted from.

Dr. Columna’s vision – Fit Families – kicked off in 2013 with the help of a grant from the DeBoer Fund at the Community Foundation. Through the program, Syracuse University students facilitate workshops for parents and their children. The children are given space to engage in physical activity that meets their individual needs while parents develop a skillset that allows them to practice the activities with their children on their own time.

Fit Families workshops also empower parents to better communicate with their child’s teachers and advocate for physical activity time for their children during school. Oftentimes, physical activity becomes a secondary priority in the school setting. Not all educators are prepared to meet the child’s unique needs and there can be a premature assumption that the child will not be successful in this area. Fit Families gives parents the knowledge necessary to have informed conversations about what kind of help their child should be receiving.

“Sometimes physical education doesn’t get the value it should have,” said Columna. “If you are not healthy, you are going to die at an early age. It doesn’t matter how good you are at math or science if you’re not healthy.”

Powerful moments arise when this value is finally realized; with tearful eyes, parents have confessed during workshops that they have never known their child’s full potential and capabilities. By directly targeting physical wellness, Fit Families has indirectly bolstered parents’ confidence in their own ability to support and teach their children. An unintended yet joyous result of the program has been how participants form networks of friendship with one another. Suddenly the simple joys of having a toy to play with and a friend to share it with have been realized.

It was a pleasant surprise to Dr. Columna to see the program gain momentum and take on a life of its own.  He states that without the Community Foundation’s initial support, this would never have been possible.

“I don’t know if they know the value of what this grant brought to us,” said Columna.

The DeBoers would undoubtedly be happy with the results of this program. As founder of the DeBoer Manufacturing Company in 1909 and the Syracuse Furniture Forwarding Company in 1910, Henry’s life was marked with an industrious spirit leading him to better his businesses through innovation. He revolutionized the process of long-distance furniture moving in the industry’s earliest days. His wife, Martha, served as the company’s Vice President. While their products found homes across the United States and Canada, the DeBoers were deeply rooted in the Syracuse community. After both had passed away, the fund was established by bequest in 1977. Today, the grant distributes $45,000 per year to local nonprofits that assist children with vision, hearing or kidney problems.

Since it received the Community Foundation grant, Fit Families has gone on to produce programming for children with Autism spectrum disorders as well.  In the future, Dr. Columna hopes to use the program’s model to help children with Down Syndrome and even those who are nonverbal. The program may have originated as a way to serve a specific demographic in Syracuse, but now educators from Texas, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and India are eager to replicate its success.

“This program is sparking a global change in how educators address the holistic needs of children with disabilities and their families,” said Columna. “And we are grateful to the community Foundation for taking a chance on our program.”

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