Gym for kids on autism spectrum hoping to bounce back

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Baxter seeks to provide a safe environment for children with autism and others. But it has struggled like many businesses to remain open during the pandemic and has recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for families who cannot afford to go to the sensory gym for children of all abilities.

Onyx (left) and Ben Martinka use a glider swing Tuesday, Oct. 13, at We Rock The Spectrum children's gym in Baxter. The sensory gym is designed with sensory equipment especially designed for children with autism. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Sara Karels wants her borderline autistic child to succeed in life and believes she has finally found a place in Baxter where her girl can find the help she needs to do exactly that.

Karels takes her daughter to We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym because of its uniquely designed sensory equipment intended to help children with sensory processing disorders.

“When we had a membership, we tried to go three to four times a week, and my daughter enjoys the different swings and jumping in their trampoline area,” Karels said.


Anesha Martinka and her husband Benedict co-own We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym, which closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. She said they now struggle to keep their doors open and recently started a GoFundMe page in an effort to keep the lights on.

“After we reopened (in June), we just have not been able to get people in the door. And we know there’s a need within the community,” she said. “We are still up and functioning in spite of COVID. We are taking the proper protocols to ensure safety. We want people to know that.”

Open for business

The owners of the specialized gym said they’re committed to providing “a safe, nurturing and fun environment to foster learning, exploration and safe sensory experiences,” particularly for those on the autism spectrum. The Baxter location opened last October.

“This has helped my child because my child is nonverbal ... and she is able to play with others, even if she is slightly different,” Karels said of her 4-year-old daughter Rylee Moodui.

Onyx Martinka uses a bolster swing to glide across the floor at the We Rock The Spectrum children's gym Tuesday, Oct 13, in Baxter. The gym is equipped with specialty sensory equipment designed especially for children with autism. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Martinka said, “There’s just a lot of equipment in the gym that just helps with the overall development of kids with autism, whether it’s strengthening them, stimulating them or calming them.”

Karels works as a paraprofessional in the Brainerd School District, so the 31-year-old from Brainerd was attracted to We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym, a franchise of sensory gyms.


“By providing a vehicle for education, awareness-raising and community involvement, a facility for child development and a new venue for family enjoyment … we’re hoping to make a positive impact here in central Minnesota,” according to the co-owners’ profile at the gym’s local website.

The gym’s equipment includes a zip line, zip box with slide, crash pit, trampoline, tunnel, carpet swing, hammock swing, climbing structure, bolster swing, and swivel rotators or carabiners with webbing.

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Baxter has uniquely designed sensory equipment intended to help children with sensory processing disorders such as autism. Submitted photo

“We realized from multiple sources, from parents with kids on the spectrum, that we’re meeting in our own neighborhood, at our churches, at our schools that there just aren’t enough resources here for kids with autism,” Martinka said.

Martinka said her 10-year-old son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was another reason for opening the sensory gym.

“It’s just that we wanted to have a fun place for him to play, a safe place, a place where he can meet other kids and, you know, socialize,” Martinka said.

Karels said the gym relaxes her daughter, who isn’t worried she’s going to get in trouble. “She can be her normal self and be able to do anything.”


Autism focused, but for everyone

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gyms were founded to provide a place for children of all ability levels to play and grow together.

“We know Minnesota is a beautiful state. But in the winters, it’s really cold out and we thought, you know, having a place to go when it’s real cold out to get rid of cabin fever, having an indoor gym, would be nice for kids here in the state,” Martinka said.

The sensory gym’s staff and volunteers share the goal of assisting children with special needs in growing beyond the expectations of doctors and therapists and also said they believe the children can learn from each other in that kind of environment.

“He’s always had a hard time making friends,” Martinka said of her son. “And I thought a kid’s gym would be a nice way for him to meet new friends … to get his energy out and just a good place for the kids in the community. … And it’s equipment that all kids can use and enjoy.”

Sheila Boldt works as a conservation outreach technician for the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District. The 31-year-old is mother to an 18-month-old boy Sig who is not autistic.

“It was a perfect place to meet with a friend that also has a little one,” Boldt said. “It’s just a great location to have playdates indoors. And he absolutely loved it. … There’s plenty to do for different ages and different developmental stages.”

We Rock The Spectrum kid's gym is located on Elder Drive in Baxter. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch


We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym bills itself as “providing a fun and safe environment for all kids to learn, explore, build self-confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem.”

“Even though he’s very young, he still participates in a lot of activities there, as well as can older children,” Boldt said of her son, who fell about 10 feet this summer at home after climbing. “And we’ve just been careful about where we take him to play now.”

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym’s co-owners worry, however, that many in the community cannot afford to experience the sensory gym and that without more customers the 4,200-square-foot indoor playground in Baxter will be forced to close.

“It may be a little bit more expensive, but it’s cost-effective for children who need that extra attention,” Karels said of the cost of the gym for children ages infant to 13 years with monthly memberships available.

GoFundMe campaign

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym’s co-owners recently created a GoFundMe page to raise $20,000 to cover costs such as the rent plus utilities, maintenance overhead and contractors.

“We also hope to be able to provide scholarships to families for whom attendance at our gym presents financial difficulties but also offers vital hope for their child’s developmental ones,” according to a GoFundMe statement from the Martinkas.

“If we have, like, $3,000 worth of scholarship funds, then we find those families who can benefit from it and then we would be able to help them come to our gym by using that money that’s been allocated,” she said.

Occupational or behavioral therapists, and personal care assistants from many organizations in surrounding counties have brought their young patients to We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Baxter for their therapy or respite sessions, according to the co-owners.


And they stated on the GoFundMe page that schools and the local medical establishment “with its burgeoning waitlists and other limitations have neither the equipment nor the personnel to provide the services families struggling with neurological or behavioral issues need.”

Karels said of the co-owners, “They do a great job of getting to know everyone’s family individually. They’ll talk to you whenever you need someone to talk to. … They always have a happy face whenever my child Rylee comes in and treat her as one of their kids.”

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym, which is not a licensed day care, also offers birthday parties and private playdates, and classes for special needs and traditional students.

It also offers two levels of “We Rock Care” services: respite and break time care and one-to-one attendant care, with the former intended to provide a break for families with children with special needs.

For more information about the sensory gym for children of all abilities, call 218-454-0631, email , visit or visit .

To learn more about the GoFundMe campaign, visit .

We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym equipment

  • Suspended equipment with swings for balance and vestibular treatment.

  • Crash mats and crash pillows for fun, motor planning and strength.

  • Zip line for stress release, and joint and body relaxation.

  • Trampoline for building leg and core strength.

  • Indoor play structure for climbing and increasing playground skills.

  • Sensory-based toys for improved auditory processing and fine motor skills.

  • Fine motor and arts and crafts area for improved hand-eye coordination.

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .


I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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