We Rock the Spectrum aims to power a movement
Dina Kimmel, center, started We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym after son Gabriel, front, was diagnosed with autism. Daughter Sophia and husband Tim round out the family.
“Finally a place where you never have to say I’m sorry.” Dina Kimmel’s voice caught as she recited her company’s motto and recalled the countless times she found herself apologizing for the behavior of her son, Gabriel, who in 2009 at the age of 2 was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“I get emotional just saying that,” said the founder and CEO of We Rock The Spectrum Kid’s Gym. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—as an autism mom you get so tired of saying that. Here, if a child has a tantrum, you don’t have to explain it away.”
The “here” Kimmel referenced is the We Rock The Spectrum sensory gym she created for kids with autism or other special needs. Each location features uniquely designed pieces of therapy-based equipment such as crash pits and bolster swings that provide sensory stimulation for improved development. Since the first gym opened in Tarzana, California, in 2010, We Rock The Spectrum has grown to more than 60 locations and in 2014 Kimmel began franchising.
Calling herself “a lioness over her children,” Kimmel said what began as a home gym built for her son evolved into We Rock The Spectrum as Gabriel’s social and other skills emerged and Kimmel realized others in the special needs community—kids and parents alike—would benefit from a place that accepted and understood them.
“There’s nothing more lonely than getting that diagnosis in the beginning,” said Kimmel, who said to husband Tim, “we have to pay this forward.”
Though her son Gabriel was the inspiration, Kimmel emphasized We Rock is an all-inclusive environment also great for “neurotypical kids” (a term widely used in the autistic community in reference to those not on the autism spectrum).
Kimmel’s daughter, Sophia, who at one point told her, “Mommy, I wish I had autism,” because she saw most of the attention focused on her brother, was also key to We Rock’s development as Kimmel sought to create a space for kids of all abilities.
“We’re able to educate neurotypical kids, give them a chance to play together so they don’t bully, they don’t misunderstand and they take that experience with them,” said Kimmel.
For franchisees, most of them parents of children with autism or somehow connected to the special needs community, Kimmel said We Rock is a great fit for both their business and personal lives.
“So many parents who weren’t able to work because they had to be there for those therapies ... we are giving families an income,” she said. Kimmel herself sold the clothing stores she’d owned for more than 17 years after Gabriel was diagnosed to dedicate her time to finding him the best care.
“To have an owner be successful with We Rock, you have to have that connection to the special needs community, to have that passion,” Kimmel added.
That’s the case for Bruce and Rahmah Umemoto, who are helping Kimmel take We Rock international as master franchisees in Malaysia. Their first gym opened in Kuala Lumpur in December and the couple, who have close relatives with autism and Down syndrome, envisions 30 gyms across the country.
A businesswoman for most of her life, Rahmah Umemoto said as she’s gotten older she reached the realization that “there’s something you need to leave behind before you leave the world and feel good about what you’re doing.
“I think about how many lives and how many families we can impact,” Umemoto said as she also noted the spirituality aspect of providing a service to others. “Working is just work, but giving back to the community, that’s what takes you to your grave in a good way.”
Kimmel, who was in Kuala Lumpur for the opening, said she’s excited to partner with people who see We Rock The Spectrum as she does: “It’s a commitment to helping thousands of families.
“This is a movement, what we’re doing.”