There are over 1 million children and young people with disabilities in the UK. 84% cannot access regular leisure facilities as they aren’t tailored to their needs. They can’t play or exercise and their health and well-being suffer; whole families are stuck at home with 72% of parents suffering from mental health problems due to isolation.
Gympanzees plans to change that! We are a social enterprise and are building the UK’s first fully inclusive leisure facility in Bristol which will cater for the play, exercise, and social needs of the 58,000 children and young people from 0-25 years who live within an hour of Bristol, and take their families out of isolation.
While we fundraise for our purpose-built centre, we run ‘Pop-Up’ centres in the main school holidays, proving the need and validating our vision. We have welcomed 4,000 visits to date, with some making a 5-hour round trip for their 1.5-hour session. The feedback has been phenomenal with many reported health benefits including a 5-year-old who slept through the night for the first time after her session, a 6-year-old girl who took her first steps, and a 3-year-old boy who had his first-ever laugh.
The entrepreneurial spirit of CEO Stephanie Wheen drives the pioneering focus of the whole team. As a physiotherapist for children with disabilities, she recognised the huge gap in provision for her clients and the idea for Gympanzees was born in 2016. Through consultation with other therapists, parents, teachers, and other disability specialists, Gympanzees was designed to provide an innovative twist on leisure, where all the play and fun is also therapeutic, providing health and well-being benefits for this overlooked community.
“It’s such an amazing place, full of wonderful people giving children, many with profound learning disabilities, fun, exercise, and therapies that are so enabling. There are so many reasons why you should pay a visit. If you think Prevention, think NHS Long Term Plan; if there were more facilities like this, children would keep out of hospital for longer; it helps fitness, respiratory levels, etc., and keeps them happier, engaging with other children. Families meet other families and give each other peer support. I can’t stress enough to take your child or ask to have a tour around and tell the world how good it is.”- Sarah Ambe, Policy Advisor at Healthwatch Bristol.
Stephanie won the Shackleton Leadership Award in February 2018 and the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Award – Award for Good in November 2018. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Great British Entrepreneur Award – Entrepreneurial Spirit. And Gympanzees was a finalist for the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s Youth Development Award in January 2019.
But it will always be a team effort, and Bristol is a great place to grow a team. Alongside the 6 board members and 4 part-time permanent staff, Bristol has shown its strong social conscience, providing an amazing 120 people who have worked or volunteered with them since early 2018 and over 70 companies who have donated, fundraised, advised, or supported.
Gympanzees has been featured on BBC Breakfast TV, national magazines, local TV, radio, and press. But no media coverage measures up to comments like this from parents:
Kirsty came to the Pop Up with her daughter.
“A truly magical place where special memories can be made and (walking) dreams can come true. Gympanzees opened up a world in which we can just exist exactly how we need to. It has given our daughter opportunities to try equipment that never would have been available to her before and for us to have quality time together. A great place to meet new people in similar situations and form new friendships.”
Dawn came to a Pop Up with her 6-year-old son.
“In my mind I knew what to expect; I’d watched all the videos and followed all the updates but I still wasn’t prepared…for the amazing feeling I came away with, the actual amount of fun my son and I experienced, the number of smiles, the ability to talk to other adults whilst my son played, the genuine feeling of being in a relaxed play environment during a ‘holiday’ period, the way each and every staff member went above and beyond to make me and my son feel welcomed and at ease, the obvious care and desire all staff showed to ensuring our every need and whim was met—and my eagerness to return for another visit.
“Holiday periods for us often mean isolation. We can’t go where we’d like to as every other family is there, making it too visually busy, too physically crowded, too loud, and in turn what should be a fun experience, is a stressful and overloading one. Home is our safe space and can end up feeling like a trap for us both. Today was different. We hope for a permanent centre.”
Fantastic feedback and happy, smiling faces drive our team.