Cindy Bickman, who opened the Chattooga School of Gymnastics and Dance off Canton Road in Marietta in 1976, said she tries to take her students on trips annually.
A group of about 16 students, some who are local Special Olympics athletes that practice at the gym, traveled to Florence, Italy the first week of December for the annual Santa Goodwill Trip with a group of about 50 people from all over the United States.
“We have for several years been on a mission to show that with people with disabilities, you have to focus on their abilities,” Bickman said. “They don’t necessarily have to be the recipients of charity but also be the ones who give and pay it forward.”
Karen Davis, 37, is one of Bickman’s students who has Down syndrome and travels with her often. She has been a member of Chattooga Gym since she was 12.
“She’s my travel buddy,” Davis said about Bickman.
Her favorite part about the trip was visiting the old churches and going to Hard Rock Café.
Another student that went on the trip is 21-year-old Lindsay Wann. She was in a car accident four years ago and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“I’ve been out the country with Cindy two other times before but this was the first time without my mom since my accident,” she said proudly.
Her favorite part of the Italy trip was going to the orphanage dressed in Santa suits and passing out toys.
“I liked hanging out with all the little kids and seeing them all smile and all excited about seeing the presents,” said Wann, who has been a student at the gym since she was 4.
One of Bickman’s coaches for the last 17 years, Joey Burgess, also went on the trip.
“It was a great opportunity … the Chattooga Foundation, which sponsors such trips, has a mission to afford athletic, artistic and educational opportunities for a person with intellectual disabilities,” she said.
During the second week of December, Bickman took five teenagers to the Doha Gathering Of All Leaders in Sports Forum in Qatar, which is located in western Asia.
She was invited to the first-ever conference and said it was a privilege a privilege to be a part of it. There were nearly 400 school-aged children in attendance along with another 1,500 adults, including Olympic athletes from all over the world.
“It was exciting to see a group of people working to see how sports can change the world,” she said. “There were a lot of things focusing on more than just winning medals.”
The local students, Jessie Miller, Joshua Brownsworth, Rylie Nelson and Jack and Ethan Landen, attended several panel discussions along with bringing their own initiative to the forum.
Nelson, 16, said their initiative focused on how to incorporate people with mental and physical disabilities into sports with able-bodied athletes.
“It seemed like a really good experience and an eye-opening one,” she said. “I had never been out of the country before.”
Seventeen-year-old Brownsworth said he had been out of the country three times before but none were as interesting as this trip to Qatar.
“The culture in Qatar is entirely different than anything I’ve ever experienced before,” he said.
Another thing he brought home from the conference was the opportunities to see so many people with different cultural backgrounds coming together for one thing, sports.
“It really helped me see that I can pretty much get along with anyone as long as we have the same goals … language isn’t a barrier,” he said.
The Landen brothers, who live in Acworth, both said their favorite part of the trip was hearing Olympic track and field athlete Carl Lewis speak.
“He taught me to take charge in what you’re doing … be responsible for yourself and make a name for yourself, 16-year-old Jake Landen said.
Lewis’ catch phrase is “Become your own CEO,” he added.
“That was a cool thing to say,” said Ethan Landen, 14. “Control your own life, don’t let somebody else control your dreams.”
Bickman isn’t sure if there will be a second annual Doha conference but she said her students learned a lot and hopes they are invited back again in the future.