The Birthing of a Dream
Deby Mullen Hergenrader, daughter of Ice Capades performers, Ken and Carmie Mullen, was born an athlete. At the age of ten, she channeled her energy into gymnastics through the Fresno Gymnastics Club, reaching the national level by age sixteen. When she reached the elite level, she became a National Gymnastics Champion and started competing internationally. If not for an ankle injury in the 1972 Olympic Trials, she may have competed in the Olympics. With gymnastics in her blood, Deby turned to coaching other up-and-coming gymnasts.
In 1960 Deby’s sister Kathy was born. Because Kathy had Down syndrome, people only saw her as “disabled” and put barriers up. Deby watched in frustration and anguish as her sister was excluded from sports and performing arts, simply because she looked and behaved a little differently. It was then that Deby began to dream of a place where all people could come and enjoy sports and activities together. It was not a dream born out of pity, but rather out of challenge and foresight.
Despite the lack of inclusion that Kathy experienced, she had numerous opportunities to watch Deby perform her gymnastics routines. Through emulation, Kathy was able to excel at the Special Olympics, becoming a four time International Special Olympics Champion. For Deby, Kathy’s amazing achievement became a catalyst for her relentless efforts to create a common bond between persons of all abilities. This bond would be fused through sports.
Out of the Dream and Into Reality
Deby realized that in order for her dream to grow and become a reality, she had to immerse herself in the complexities of people with various abilities. She volunteered numerous hours to coaching children and adults who had different physical, neurological, and mental Abilities. Her athletes grew in strength and skill.
In 1975, Deby married Steve Hergenrader, a former professional baseball player who had signed with the New York Yankees. They both knew the benefits of sports and athletics, and it was Steve who asked Deby, “Are you going to dream about this our whole life together or are we going to do something? I can build you a beam and find mats for you. Let’s break some barriers!” In 1982, the Hergenraders found “the perfect house” in Fresno, California. They transformed one room into a dance studio and equipped their backyard to house gymnastics apparatuses. By 1982, “Gymnastics by Deby” was created.
During this time, the National Special Olympics Committee tracked down Deby because they heard she was a national/Olympic level gymnast who had a sister with Down syndrome. They invited her to serve on the National Special Olympics Gymnastics Committee to help add the sport of gymnastics to the Special Olympics’ sports list. It was Deby’s honor to serve on this committee!
Breaking the Barrier
Barriers are often created out of fear or uncertainty, and can result in the separation or prevention of positive progress. One of the barriers that separates one person from another is the lack of common experiences.
When Steve and Deby observed community dance studios, gyms, self-defense classes, and baton twirling studios, they saw an overwhelming need for a program that integrated students and helped them learn from each other. The Hergenrader’s inclusive sports, performing arts and educational classes allowed students to learn together, resulting in barriers tumbling down. Students of all Abilities found a common ground and accomplished more than they ever believed possible.
Also, instead of a competitive environment, students supported each other and grew in knowledge and skill. In just one year, and without any advertising, classes grew to two hundred students, ages three years old to adult. Parents and volunteers got caught up in the Hergenrader’s dream and a board of directors was formed of students’ parents. In October, 1984, Break the Barriers was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation.
The Dream Lives On
In 1986, the Barrier Breaker team was formed. This performing group is made up of students and staff who have a heart for the mission of Break the Barriers and who strive to show inclusion at it’s best. Through dance, gymnastics, martial arts, American Sign Language, stunts, and music, the team softens hearts, opens eyes, and generates hope for all people. Each performer has amazing Abilities and ranges from 6-years-old to adult. The Barrier Breakers’ outreach has been named “The National Role Model for Inclusion” by the US Department of Education and has helped change government policies in other countries, impacting over 200 million lives worldwide.
There are over 10,000 individuals who come through the doors of our facility weekly, including students from multiple school districts, inner-city outreach and Veterans. Break the Barriers is continually adapting classes to meet the increasing demand for this unique and one-of-a-kind program.
Steve and Deby Hergenrader—together with their two sons, Jared and Tyler, staff, and board of directors—have fostered a “family” of dedicated people who are instrumental in the tremendous success and acceptance of this program. Break the Barriers is truly a dream come true.