We had the chance to interview Morgan Lennon and Natalie Fuertes of LIC Kids Gymnastics this month, and trust us, you'll want to read this and take notes!
Business Name: LIC Kids Gymnastics
Position: Program Directors
City: Long Island City, NY
CSY: I love that you’re educators and you come at your programming with that lens -TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU CAME TO BE IN THE POSITIONS YOU’RE IN NOW.
Our story is a little different than most, because typically gym owners and directors are former gymnasts.
Morgan Lennon (Program Director): I come from an art and theater background but started working at a gymnastics facility in NYC when the recession hit and it was hard to get a job in the theater world. I started out as a receptionist who knew nothing about gymnastics. Over the course of many years, I learned the ins and outs of this sport and running a gymnastics business. I became the Program Director at LIC KIds Gymnastics a little over 3.5 years ago and saw it as an opportunity to highlight the best parts of the sport and leave behind the less desirable aspects of it.
I think the fact that I come from a non-competitive background helped me create a well-rounded program that’s much more whole child focused and uses gymnastics as an educational tool. I’ve tried to build a business that focuses on respect, kindness, and inclusivity - from the way that we work with our employees to the way that we train our gymnasts. I want everyone to have an enriching and fulfilling experience when they walk through our doors.
Natalie Fuertes (Assistant Program Director): About 3 years ago I moved to LIC from Astoria with my husband and two children - Marcus, now 11, and Bella, now 7. When we moved to the neighborhood, we decided to enroll them in classes at LIC Kids Gymnastics since it was right up the block from our new apartment (they were previously taking classes at Loupakis in Astoria). They’re both obsessed with gymnastics and within a year they were invited onto LICKG’s newly created competitive team. I vividly remember the day that I opened up the envelope with their acceptance. I was so happy for them, but I knew there was no way that we could afford the tuition. I immediately reached out to Morgan to see if she needed any help around the gym so that I could earn tuition credit, which quickly turned into me joining the staff full-time in less than a year.
It’s always funny when I tell people that I run a gymnastics facility because they automatically assume that I was a former gymnast, when in reality I have zero experience in the gymnastics world. My background is in Early Childhood Education - I was a teacher and an administrator in both charter and private schools. I like to think that my experience in education brings a different light to our program. With most gymnastics facilities being run by former gymnasts, I think that their programs tend to be singularly focused on the sport itself and on winning, whereas our program focuses on the whole child. It isn’t uncommon to hear our coaches giving a mini-lesson on gender or consent or inclusivity while their kids are working on beam. We have these kids in our program, so why not throw in a little learning while they’re having fun?
CSY: From the moment I stepped inside your location and had my first conversation with you two, it was clear to me that your business is really different. WHAT’S MOST UNIQUE ABOUT LIC KIDS GYMNASTICS?
Our staff is like a family! This is important to note because it’s the foundation for everything that our program has grown into. Gymnastics is an individual sport - you compete against everyone else to win first place. This mentality carries over into most coaches adult lives and, very often, you end up with a group of coaches that are fighting over mats in the gym while they’re teaching their classes. Given that the program is run by two people who aren’t former gymnasts, we don’t have that “winning is everything” mentality. Because of that, we attract coaches who share the same philosophy and are passionate about more than just winning competitions.
Inclusivity has been the driving force of our program. All of our coaches come to us with a story of having experienced a form of mental/emotional abuse or having felt excluded during their careers as a gymnast. Because of that, we’ve been able to create some wonderful programs that cater to groups of children who are often excluded in the gymnastics world. Our special needs and our gender expansive programs in particular have been met with positive feedback from the community and they wouldn’t exist had our coaches not felt passionate about providing opportunities to these underserved groups of children.
Our coaches take the time to create a progressional curriculum each semester. When doing this, they’re looking at the developmental stage of each age group in a way that other places aren’t. They’re taking into consideration that every child has a different learning style - visual, kinesthetic, auditory - and tailor their lessons by using props and specific activities that engage and support those different learning styles.
We also take the responsibility of being a community-centric business very seriously. We make an effort to be invested and support our community by teaching our gymnasts about different charities and how they can give back.
CSY: I am in love with the fact that you’re doing the right moral things in your opinion, and that you think it will pay off in the long run. WHY HAVE YOU CHOSEN TO DIFFERENTIATE YOUR GYM IN THESE WAYS?
Child safety has been the driving force behind this. It’s now common knowledge that the gymnastics world has been rife with mental, physical, and sexual abuse for far too long. There was a belief that you couldn’t produce a high level athlete without the abuse, and that type of thinking just isn’t true. At the end of the day, gymnastics should be the conduit for teaching our children how to be good citizens, and for us, that means serving groups that have been traditionally excluded from the gymnastics world.
A lot of gyms and child-focused businesses refuse to work with the special needs and LGBTQ+ communities. Some choose to exclude them because it doesn’t align with their political beliefs and others because they think it won’t be financially viable. Whatever the reason, we want to prove to these businesses that not only is it the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. Invest in child safety and the education of your staff, be inclusive, stand up for the rights of excluded groups, invest in your community. It’s possible to do all of these things and be a profitable business. They’re not mutually exclusive. You just need to make a decision as a staff to do these things.
CSY: WHAT HAS THE RESULT BEEN THUS FAR? HOW HAVE CHANGES BEEN RECEIVED?
Overall, there’s been a positive response from the community. We’ve lost some customers along the way, especially as we’ve become more vocal about supporting LGBTQ children and families, but it’s still the right thing to do. It’s unfortunate, but having conversations about gender, pronouns, etc. is still synonymous with sex education, which just isn’t true. At the end of the day it boils down to wanting our gymnasts to be kind to one another regardless of how they look or what their pronouns are.
As a whole, people in the community are supportive of our decision to have these conversations in our classes. Just the other day, a local mom posted about our gender expansive classes saying, “I feel lucky to have such an inclusive establishment in our neighborhood. I hope more business owners follow suit.” We like to think that this shows that our staff is passionate about their jobs. You don’t get the feeling that the coaches are just doing this for a paycheck while they further their personal goals. Our families know that our coaches are committed early childhood development and giving our gymnasts a well-rounded education.
CSY: Our missions definitely have overlap. HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE US COME TOGETHER TO CHANGE SOCIAL NORMS AND IMPROVE SUPPORTS FOR FAMILIES?
We want to continue educating our families about what they should require of businesses that are working with their children. They should ask them to switch to gender neutral bathrooms, to allow breastfeeding in the lobby, to make their facilities family friendly, and easily accessible for folks with disabilities.
We’ve slowly implemented these changes but typically don’t broadcast it because we don’t want people to think that we’re doing it as a strategic business move. We’re not looking for any accolades, we do it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s what our families deserve. We’ve had countless conversations with parents of children who are limb different, who have children with special needs, or children who are gender expansive, and it’s sad to hear them tell us that they self-select out of certain businesses because they feel like they aren’t welcome. It’s important that they walk into our business and see our gender neutral restroom signs and our breastfeeding is welcome signs, so that they know they’re welcome and accepted here. Our families shouldn’t have to ask for those things. They should be able to walk into a facility, see the sign, and know that they’re accepted. And more businesses need to do this.
CSY: WHAT’S EXCITING TO YOU ABOUT WORKING WITH UP-STAND?
We’re excited to work with a business that is going to help us spread the word and continue to educate families about what they should expect from the businesses they frequent. The most powerful tool that families have is the vote that their money gives them. As a customer, you can ask for things. If you go into a facility that doesn’t have a changing table, ask for it. If you go into a facility that doesn’t have gender neutral restrooms, ask for them.
By working with UP-STAND, we can send the signal to businesses that those changes are not only the right thing to do morally, but it can be financially beneficial to your business by bringing in more customers.
UP-STAND has a great following and platform to share this information and empower families to advocate for themselves.
CSY: Thank you for that! WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR GOALS FOR 2019?
While we currently run LIC Kids Gymnastics, we don’t own the business. We are, however, so emotionally invested in our staff and families, that we hope to purchase it from the current owner this year and eventually expand so that we can continue to offer more programs to those underserved communities.
CSY: You're doing such great things. HOW CAN UP-STAND’S COMMUNITY MEMBERS SUPPORT YOU?
Continue to enroll in classes, spread the word within their networks that there’s a children’s business that’s offering these programs, and support us as we continue on this journey!
So let's do this!
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