July 5, 2022
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Nike grant gives Blue Balloon Foundation a boost

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Donna Tschopp

“Dangerous Donna” Tschopp just hit a significant milestone in her quest to build a new exercise enterprise.

But this one is not private like the Dangerous Curves personal training business she started in 2000, nor is her pool of clients the same.

Tschopp’s latest venture is helping kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn to incorporate physical activity into their lives, something that is often hampered by a variety factors.

On Wednesday, June 15, Tschopp will accept her first major grant award, from Nike Inc., providing an influx of funds that will help her nonprofit Blue Balloon Foundation see more autism clients.

Dangerous Donna, as she is known, still operates her private personal training business, but learned from a friend that most therapy centers that teach life skills to autistic students do not provide physical fitness exercise as part of their offering.

There are many resources and programs available for kids with ASD under age 10 to receive therapy, but most centers stop taking kids after they are 10 years old or so, leaving their parents only private options for autistic children who can’t attend traditional school.

“The moms and dads coming here would tell me that it seems like everything an autistic person needs is $500. It’s $500 for speech therapy this month, $500 for occupational therapy this month,” she said. “They said, ‘we only have so many 500 dollars.’”

She saw an opportunity to fill a void doing what she loves while improving the lives and confidence of young autistic people through physical fitness.

Kids diagnosed with ASD may not have the motor skills and social skills to interact in settings where a large number of people gather, such as a gymnasium or a fitness center.

“They can’t join a sports team, they can’t join a baseball team or basketball team, they can’t interact with all of that. They can’t put all of that together,” Tschopp said. “What alternatives do they have after 10 years old? They are falling through the cracks. Even gym (class) at schools is not set up for an autistic person. A lot of times they just stand off to the side.”

Tschopp says some of her autism clients barely speak at all.

“Most of them can’t complete a full sentence with me,” she said.

So it takes some creativity and patience to get them to warm up to the idea of getting on cross training equipment or a stationary bicycle.

Her foundation collects donations from anywhere that pay for eight workout sessions per client. She has found that autism clients begin to lose focus after about 45 minutes, so workout sessions are set for 45 minutes. They like repetition and check lists, so she makes sure the sessions are tailored that way and encourages some of her autism clients to go to the chalkboard and check off each exercise they complete.

She learned that one client liked to throw a football, so throwing the football 10 times was incorporated into the workout session she designed for him.

She gives a free consultation first, to see if a client will be comfortable enough to adequately participate in the workout sessions.

All autism clients must be accompanied by a parent, therapist or caregiver and if one of them never gets comfortable enough to participate in exercising, she doesn’t push them.

Tschopp has gained a list of autism clients through social media advertising and word of mouth and takes each client one by one off that list. Parents who are happy with their child’s progress and want them to continue having sessions at Blue Balloon can make donations in the name of their child so they can come to sessions on a regular basis.

Her private business clients donated about $3,000 to help the foundation get started, which was officially approved Feb. 19, 2021.

Tschopp said the foundation getting its first large grant, $10,000, from a company like Nike was really exciting and “shows we have credibility.”

She is awaiting word on another possible grant from Starbucks.

Her name, Dangerous Donna, evolved from people not really knowing how to pronounce her Swedish last name, Tschopp (pronounced Tu-Shop). Instead, people would refer to their personal trainer at Dangerous Curves as Donna, and sometimes Dangerous Donna.

A big believer in self marketing, Tschopp began marketing herself as Dangerous Donna and has a website by that name.

She re-branded her successful training business to DangerousFit, as some potential clients inferred the “Curves” in Dangerous Curves meant it was a training business for women.

But curves referred to muscle curves, not the female shape, she said, and many of her clients today are males.

She received her certification as an autism exercise specialist from the American College of Sports Medicine, which is a very new accreditation. She is also an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and earned her bachelor of science degree in health studies and human performance from the University of Memphis.

Blue Balloon Foundation is the only provider of specialized fitness centered on teens and adults with ASD in the Mid-South.

And Tschopp said the foundation will soon have a new offering for the autism community at her facility at 2756 Appling Center Cove in the LSI campus.

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