A Chance to Grow grew from a dream in Bob and Kathy DeBoer’s kitchen. Founded in 1983 and based in Northeast Minneapolis since 1998, the agency provides health care services to children with developmental delays in speech, vision, and hearing. A Chance to Grow also houses a childcare center and runs a personal health care agency that serves 100 families in their homes daily.
In addition, A Chance to Grow staff members have trained more than 5,000 educators across the country in its SMART curriculum, a program designed to train bodies and brains to work together better.
SMART has earned kudos from teachers, who say they have seen students’ confidence increase as they gain skills in motor movement. Also, they add, many children are able to sit still longer and focus better after taking part in the active hands-on learning activities.
The East Minneapolis Exchange Club honored Bob DeBoer with its 2016 Book of Golden Deeds Award, which is awarded annually to “a person who continuously donates time, talent and energy to help those in need,” according to their website. DeBoer said he was honored by the award. “Northeast is a place where people come to realize their dreams. In that sense, this community welcomed A Chance to Grow. Northeast has been a good site for us. It’s been very supportive.”
The concepts behind A Chance to Grow date back to 1979, when Kathy and Bob DeBoer’s daughter Jesse suffered a traumatic brain injury at birth.
“My daughter was oxygen deprived in utero,” Bob DeBoer said. “We were told that she would never walk, talk, nor lead a normal life. The doctor looked at us and said, ‘Nothing can be done for her, so just take her home and love her.’”
The DeBoers refused to accept his prognosis. Bob, who had contracted polio in 1948 when he was a year old, already had years of experience with doctors and hospitals. “In those days, polio kids spent six to 12 months at the state hospital. Visitors were only allowed two hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays, and my folks lived 200 miles away. I grew up in the medical world. I was telling my doctors what they were supposed to be doing for my care.”
Kathy, he added, has a “voracious curiosity” and is an avid reader. She studied everything she could find on brain injuries and kept current on the latest research. She read about Art Sandler, an East Coast physical therapist who worked with brain-injured children. His neuro-psychological approach linked movement to their brain development.
Bob DeBoer said that Jesse’s left side had been affected by her injury. “She was drooly, passive, and could only make about 10 word-like sounds. Her eyes didn’t work together very well.”
The DeBoers took Jesse to see Sandler, who recommended a rigorous program of daily exercises throughout the day. “When Jesse was three, we had more than 40 volunteers coming to our house to work with her,” he said. “After four years, Jesse began to walk with ease as her balance improved; she was able to stand up straight and soon after that, she was able to speak.”
Jesse is now 37 years old. She walks, talks, rides a bike, works part time and has enjoyed entering the family’s Saint Bernards in dog shows. “It was something she could compete in and succeed at,” DeBoer said.
Founding the agency
He and Kathy learned much from Sandler, including how structured, physical movements could trigger the brain to create new pathways, stimulating brain activity and function. “When we heard this, we were electrified,” DeBoer said. “We brought this practice home to help our Jesse, and we reached out to friends and other families with ‘hurt’ children.”
He and Kathy told Sandler that they wanted to start a center for kids in Minnesota. Sandler said that if they could find eight families, he would come to the state every six months and work with them. DeBoer went on a radio show to explain the project, and 40 families called in. “Including us, we got the eight families,” he said.
The DeBoers quickly realized that they would need many volunteers to work with Jesse. “I learned how to organize,” DeBoer said. “I’d been involved in a lot of community things, but I had never been involved in asking people to just help me. For three and a half years, we had over 40 volunteers coming to our house. Kathy and I would go off to work [he was the CFO at what is now Pillsbury United Communities, she worked in childcare] and the volunteers came in on a schedule. I went to three or four churches every year, recruiting. I even put out a handbook on how to recruit volunteers.”
In the meantime, the DeBoers were paying close attention to the movements Jesse was doing: rolling, spinning her arms and legs, learning to balance. They were also learning about the difference between the brain stem and the brain cortex. “The brain cortex coordinates all of your conscious thought. The brain stem controls the unconscious motor activity, your lips, your tongue, your breathing. Traditional schools teach to the cortex, working on such things as concentration and memory. But our kids have disorganization in the brain stem. They need brain stimulating skills that improve balance, hand-eye coordination, visual perception and reading skills.”
The early programs
The DeBoers launched their first program, Boost Up with seed money from the General Mills Foundation. Boost Up targeted children with learning disabilities and reading problems. Students learned to crawl across the floor like an alligator, move opposing arms and legs, spin in a circle, march down the hall, and roll like a log. “Test results proved that our program was increasing students’ learning readiness skills,” DeBoer said. “Their auditory discrimination improved, as did their reading and math abilities.”
(Those movements and others gradually evolved into the SMART program, the brain development/body movement curriculum that A Chance to Grow now markets world-wide.)
In 1994, the couple founded New Visions Charter School in North Minneapolis. The charter school was a program of A Chance to Grow. By 1997, the school had 200 students. In 1998, they had a boon: local business owner Jerry Meyers donated the building at 1800 2nd Ave. NE to them through a charitable remainder trust. The building had been a sheet metal factory, with tall ceilings and no windows. The DeBoers completely renovated it to house New Visions School and A Chance to Grow.
When the state changed the laws on charter schools, the DeBoers decided let go of the school to focus on A Chance to Grow. The A Chance to Grow building now houses MTS Charter School—which is separate from A Chance to Grow and occupies most of the building—and Turnquist Child Care, one of nine Strong Beginnings sites in Hennepin County that accepts county-referred children.
Other building occupants are A Chance to Grow’s occupational and speech outpatient rehabilitation clinic, a special developmental optometrist, an audiologist, and a neurotechnology program. DeBoer said, “We have a crew of OTs [occupational therapists] here, who work with 15 charter schools in a seven-county area. We also provide virtual OTs. The agency has 150 people.”
Support from parents
Northeast resident Tony Farah, who recently joined A Chance to Grow’s board, said that his 11-year old son is autistic and non-verbal. He learned about A Chance to Grow from a friend. “As parents, we were committed to go above and beyond for our child.”
His son started speech and occupational therapy, and has recently been learning about reflexology and neurofeedback. “After about 10 sessions, we started seeing a big change in his sleeping patterns. Previously, he had been waking up at 3 a.m. and coming into our bed. Now, he sleeps all night in his own bed. I can’t tell you how pleased we are with the staff. They think outside the box to help my son. The neurofeedback helps him calm down. We are hoping that he will be able to focus better and enhance his learning.”
“My son loves to go there,” Farah added. “We go there every day.”
Another parent, Katy Hokanson, said she started bringing her 9 year old son to A Chance to Grow a year ago. Although her son is gifted and has a high I.Q., he suffered from anxiety. He was also defiant and unmotivated. “We were trying to deal with the anxiety. He would just shut down. It was almost like he wasn’t there. No one could figure him out. We really did not want to use medication on him. The public school wanted to slap labels on him, but nothing ever sat right with me.”
Through certain exercises and body work, the Chance to Grow therapist worked to get him to develop reflexes on his own. “He also started neurofeedback, which has been amazing,” Hokanson added. “We started seeing a change. He has opened up and becoming talkative. His teachers have noticed it. He is more engaged, more happy.” The other service they used was the developmental optometrist. “She was brilliant. He had issues with reading, and we thought it was his eyes, but it wasn’t. She really encouraged me to look into dyslexia.”
Her son now attends a small private school where the class sizes are small. He also goes to A Chance to Grow once a week. “It has all made a huge difference for him. You have to keep working and making sacrifices to figure out how to help your child. It’s constant and exhausting. But things fall into place. A Chance to Grow has been awesome. Their whole approach is different. They are open minded and they really care,” Hokanson said.
How much hope?
DeBoer said, “Our job at A Chance to Grow is to identify interventions that would be better than what is out there now. We look at what the latest brain research tells us. A lot of research is being done, but it’s only being talked about in test labs. The challenge is this: what happens in public institutions, medicine and clinics is determined by economics. We see it in the public schools, where they can only give a child occupational therapy once or twice a week. What is permitted is economically limited. It’s been hard to grow A Chance to Grow. I’m always trying to identify a revenue stream to pay for new programs. And after all these years, I’m approaching the time to retire. We’re developing people in-house.”
DeBoer said that he once was challenged by a university professor who accused him of giving families false hope. “I said, ‘Tell me, how much hope should I give a parent? If you don’t believe in hope, you’d have to shut down every religious institution in America.’”
“You have to have hope for the potential of your child. If you don’t have hope, you can’t get out of bed in the morning.” As to his programs, he added, “There is no magic to this and no guarantee. But there is a guarantee that if you don’t try, there will be a more limited experience for your child.”
(Photos provided by A Chance to Grow except for the current Bob DeBoer by Gail Olson)
Child on monkey bars
A Chance to Grow helps train children to coordinate their motor functions and other unconscious muscle activity to help stimulate their mind. This student is learning to use monkey bars with the help of an attendant.Zoom