Local gymnasts raising funds and awareness for clean drinking water

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a bona fide youth athletics renaissance happening right here in Wayne County.

Thanks to laser-like focus and countless hours of hard work, Steve Pinto’s dream of turning the old Chroma Tube building into the NEPA Sports Factory is now a reality.

As a result, White Mills has become a bustling Mecca for boys and girls hoping to fulfill their own dreams.

And, while the Sports Factory offers everything from baseball and softball to soccer and karate, one group in particular is growing by leaps and bounds.
Literally.

Flying So High

Katie Firmstone is the driving force behind Balance Gymnastics.

Katie fell in love with the sport the same way that so many little girls her age did: By watching Nadia Comaneci dazzle the world at the Olympic Games in Montreal.

When Katie saw the little Russian gymnast rack up gold medals and perfect 10s, she was absolutely hooked. Inspired by Nadia’s amazing feats, Katie went on to dedicate the vast majority of her life to the sport, both and as an athlete and as a coach.

“Gymnastics teaches life lessons,” she said. “There isn’t another sport out there where you fail so much before you ever succeed. There just isn’t. Gymnastics teaches you never to give up.”

Katie has been a gymnast since the age of eight. She competed all through high school at Wilkes Barre Coughlin, then took her talents to the NCAA level at the University of Pittsburgh.

After earning her degree, she settled in Honesdale with her husband (George) and three daughters (Emma, Abby, Julia).

Each of her children embraced the sport as well to one degree or another. In fact, Emma is currently a standout member of the Yale women’s gymnastics team.

Katie is a veteran coach and Level 10 judge who lives the sport year-round.
Her latest endeavor is Balance Gymnastics and Wellness Center, which began modestly but is now wildly successful.

Balance is open to boys and girls of all ages and abilities as a recreational pursuit. However, for those with a more ambitious nature, Katie formed an Excel Program ... a team that competes under the umbrella of USA Gymnastics.

“We started small last year with just five meets,” Katie said. “But the kids were amazing. They brought home all kinds of medals and trophies. So, we decided to expand a little bit this year.”

The goal isn’t to produce another Nadia (though that would be incredible!) but to keep growing the sport in a positive direction.

“I want our kids to work hard, but have fun too,” she said. “I want them to be good, well-rounded people.”

Giving Back

The Balance Gymnastics and Wellness Center is buzzing all year long.

Hundreds of boys and girls cycle through the NEPA Sports Factory facility five days a week. It’s a dizzying schedule ruled by happy chaos.

Each night when Katie makes the rounds to clean up, she inevitably finds forgotten plastic water bottles. Many of them are still mostly full.

“I have to empty them out and throw the bottles in recycling,” she said. “That part is no big deal, but all that water down the drain always drove me crazy.”

Katie’s point is well-taken, but try as she might she could never come up with a solution to this wasted water problem.
Never, that is until an epiphany which arrived in ... of all places ... an airport.

“I was down visiting my sister in Florida,” Katie recalled. “On the way back, I needed something to read and I grabbed this book called Thirst.”

Written by Scott Harrison, the book’s full title is ‘Thirst: A Story of Redemption and Compassion.” Its mission is to “Bring clean water to the world.”

Harrison worked as a photographer for an organization called “Charity Ships” that operates a fleet of hospital craft and offers free healthcare in developing nations.

Harrison’s two years of experience in West Africa led him to form his own non-profit, called “Charity:Water.”

By the time Katie’s plane touched down back here in NEPA, the book had made an indelible mark. She now knew what she could do to address the problem that had been driving her crazy.

“Charity:Water is such a great organization and it’s such an important cause,” Katie said. “I couldn’t wait to tell everybody my idea. And, as soon as the kids heard it they were so excited to help.”

All That’s Good

If you’re a little bit weary of all the negativity in the world right now, you are not alone.

Watching the national news each night after supper can be maddening. In fact, it’s so frustrating that sometimes we forget that there’s an awful lot of good out there if we just take a deep breath and look around.

For example, say hello to Esme Schloesser and Sophia Valerio ... two of the best kids you’re ever going to meet.

Esme is the daughter of Carl and Dr. Kady Schloesser, Honesdale. She’s just eight, but wise and empathetic beyond her years.

Case in Point: When Esme was approaching seven, her family began asking what she wanted for her birthday. To their amazement, Esme didn’t want a doll or a video game, an iPad or a cell phone.

Nope. She wanted an empty box. And she wanted people to put money in it.

That certainly seems like an odd request. But, it only takes a moment to realize that Esme has a huge heart ... and that there’s a lot going on behind her mischievous eyes.

Esme had heard about the hurricane-ravaged island of Haiti, so she sent her birthday windfall there to help with the recovery efforts.

Esme was energized again when Coach Katie told the team about Charity:Water. This time around, the request didn’t coincide with a birthday, but that didn’t stop her for a moment.

“I just had my First Communion,” Esme said. “I got kind of a lot of money, so I decided to donate that.”

By “kind of a lot” Esme meant either $260 or $280 (she isn’t quite sure). Regardless, she didn’t bat an eye. Esme gave it all.

“People everywhere should be treated the same way,” she said simply. “Everybody should have clean water.”

Sophia is the daughter of Sal and Jennifer Valerio, Lakeville. She’s only seven but every bit as remarkable as her elder teammate.

The minute Sophia heard about all the people who needed help getting clean water, she leapt into action.

Sophia didn’t have any First Communion money, but she did have an awful lot of toys and clothes ... and that got her thinking.

“I wanted to help too,” she said in a small, shy voice.

And help she did. Sophia and her parents gathered up some of those toys and brought them to a store. There, she exchanged her treasures for cash.

“I got 100 dollars,” she said with a big smile. “And I donated it because I want everybody to have clean water like we do.”

Full Circle

Katie’s discovery of Charity:Water has become a teaching moment for her students. When she explained the situation to them, they were stunned.

“It’s just unimaginable,” she said. “I mean, there are kids the same age as our kids who walk two hours every day just to get some dirty water. Then, when they get back, their parents boil it for them so maybe they can drink some ... or have a bath.”

And so, Balance Gymnastics entered the fray. They raised money by charging $5 per person to attend their annual showcase. They collected change in (you guessed it!) a big water bottle. They’re selling t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “We Flip for Charity:Water.”

Even more poignantly, kids like Esme and Sophia came up with big-hearted plans of their own.

So far, the team has raised more than $3,000 with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The ultimate goal is to have their money help build wells in Africa.

“Whenever that well is done, Charity:Water will put a marker with the Balance name on it,” she said. “And they’ll send us the GPS coordinates so we can all look it up on the computer and see.”

There’s still time if you’d like to help. No donation is too small and 100 percent of the money goes directly to help a struggling family or village get clean drinking water.

For more information or to support the cause, please contact Katie Firmstone at 570-470-1365.

Or, check out the Balance Gymnastics and Wellness Center’s website and Facebook page.