What A Wonderful World
This is our story of how ZUMBA® Fitness inspired an entire community to come together in support of helping those with autism and enabled so many of us to experience an amazing journey together.
It began almost seven years ago; what I thought would be an ordinary Monday evening ZUMBA® class turned out to be a life changing experience. In my first class at a new location, I met a special young man named James, and his mother Marylou.
James was dancing, stomping, and simply letting the music move him, unaware of his surroundings or of those watching him. After class, I learned that James was autistic, and his communication consisted of one-word sentences. He said my name “D-e-b-i" and I instantly fell in love with his spirit.
As I grew to know James and understand the challenges he faced each day, every Monday ZUMBA® session became a special treat when I saw James arrive. As time passed, I realized how he was becoming much more focused and controlled. He seemed to be using ZUMBA® as his method of communication and expression.
This positive interaction inspired me to hold a special class for Autism Awareness Month in April of 2012, and James was our special guest. I was so excited to find out that James was going to close out our event by singing “What a Wonderful World.” While James is not able to speak in complete sentences, he can sing!
Looking forward to an event celebrating both community and awareness, I got the devastating news that my mother had suddenly passed away, mere hours before our event was supposed to start.
But I remembered that my mother had always attended and supported every ZUMBA® charity event I had ever organized. This event, and James, was important to me, and therefore important to her. We held the class, and I kept her death to myself until the event ended. The inspiration of seeing James animated and happy was emotional enough—when James sang at the end of the program, there was not a dry eye in the community center. You see, in James’s world, it is truly wonderful!
Just a few months later, a young lady named Kelsey came to my class at the local community center. I was a little concerned for her safety because of the way she moved, and thought she could possibly hurt herself.
Kelsey’s aunt shared with me that Kelsey is autistic. What at first looked troubling was Kelsey’s excitement to be there and to dance with others. She too, expresses herself and communicates through music!
As time passed, I hosted several events and classes including James and Kelsey. Our entire community welcomed them and became an extended support network. James and Kelsey were doing so well they were willing to help me and the other ZUMBA® Instructors, standing in front of the classes and dancing with us. We all could see the difference that ZUMBA® made in the lives of these two young friends—and we felt a tremendous source of pride in them.
As we continued to foster this mutual development, I attended my first ZUMBA® convention in August of 2013. As I prepared for the event, I started chatting with ZES Ann Saldi. During our conversation, we invited her to come to an event in Maryland, with one requirement – that we focus on charity events.
Incredibly, I learned that Ann has twin autistic boys, and this cause is as dear to her heart as it is to ours! Planning for our event began before the convention concluded. Everything happens for a reason . . .
Through an amazing partnership with the community center director and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), a bigger and better event was planned in April 2014, during Autism Awareness Month.
The community center staff, ZUMBA® Instructors, and the families of James and Kelsey pulled together to determine where the event proceeds would have the greatest effect. We agreed- the money should stay within the community that came together to raise it. We arrived at innovative decision: My company (BLING it On Fitness) created the “Camp BLING for BLUE Scholarship,” so every dollar raised had immediate, local impact. Through the M-NCPPC, this foundation donates all proceeds directly to autistic children so that they have an opportunity to go to local summer camps!
With the support of ZESs, Ann Saldi, April (Smiles) Smith, DMV Zjammers, local ZIN® members and class participants, we have now sponsored, planned, and conducted five successful Unmasking Autism ZUMBA® Charity Events, raising nearly $34,000.00. That money stays right within our community and helped 103 kids attend summer camp to learn and grow. A sixth event (Fabulous Flamingos - #Flocking4Autism) is already in the works for April 7, 2019 and all involved are excited for the challenge to continue making these events bigger and better than the ones before!
Inspired by the ZUMBA® Fitness Program and the success of the charity events, the Camp Bling For Blue Scholarship, and James and Kelsey, the community center and M-NCPCC furthered their commitment and built a therapeutic sensory room – a helpful environment for those with autism and other mental and cognitive challenges. This unique community offering is the only one in the state of Maryland.
James and Kelsey have continued to grow and expand their worlds with the help of their community. They’ve been included as special guests for local grand openings, singing their signature songs “What a Wonderful World,“ and “Over the Rainbow.” They’ve traveled to other autistic charity events out of state, and Kelsey even had the unique experience of visiting The Band Perry (a national country music band) backstage and singing for a group at the concert.
James is now able to speak in complete sentences and is much more focused. When his favorite recording artist Pitbull comes on, you can see the joy come over his entire body- communication that even a little while ago may have been challenging. He is employed at the National Institute for Health and commutes on his own daily.
Kelsey has entered an occupational-based learning program, and is thriving with her newfound confidence; she loves reaching out to friends and family on Facebook! While they still may depend on others, they are now more independent and social than they were before.
With all that James and Kelsey have gained, I know that those around them have gained much more. An entire community came together to support James and Kelsey. We grew together. We came to realize what we could accomplish when we work together toward a worthwhile goal. All this, started by the ZUMBA® fitness program!
Our journey has not ended. None of us ever know for sure what life holds in store, but I know mine will continue to include the inspiration of ZUMBA® fitness. There’s no limit on where you can go if you let it move you™.
Everything happens for a reason.
IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD!
Debi Bevins CEO &
Founder of BLING it ON Fitness
Come Share in our Wonder!
Join us for our 6th annual Autism Charity event on April 7, 2019. For additional information on the Camp BLING for BLUE Scholarship, continue to review www.blingitonfitness.com. Change your body, your outlook, and help your community do the same!