MARS HILL — You can’t tell by just looking, but less than three years ago, a Blaine woman started a revolution within a modest building that once housed a department store. And ever since Allison Wheeler helped her first youngster take a tentative tumble through All Star Gymnastics on Main Street in Mars Hill, the reverberations of that movement have been felt across Aroostook County.
Wheeler, a former gymnast who has taught the sport for four years, has founded The County’s only gymnastics facility. What began with a group of 20 students in Bridgewater has now expanded to involve more than 300 students who take classes at four locations across the region, including at the flagship facility, which operates full time inside the former J.J. Newberry store.
“I just wanted to give the youth around here another option to have fun and get exercise beyond the traditional basketball, soccer,” Wheeler said during a recent interview at her facility. “I did gymnastics as a child, and I got a job coaching in college. The desire to get back into it and to give kids more options led me to start teaching again in 2008.”
Wheeler said that when she began coaching in Bridgewater, she said she’d consider her endeavor a success “if eight kids came.” When 20 showed up, she knew she was on to something.
“I didn’t do any advertising, it was just word-of-mouth,” she said. “And my classes just kept growing and growing. It remains like that to this day. I haven’t advertised once. I opened a gym in Mars Hill last year, and now I have more than 300 students that take classes in Mars Hill, Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle and Houlton.”
The Mars Hill facility is open six days a week.
As the clientele has grown, so have the classes Wheeler offers. Her classes now include gymnastics, dance, Irish step dancing and boys acrobatics. She also is helping to field an elite college cheering team. Her athletes come from as far as Sherman and the St. John Valley to attend classes.
Besides making the classes safe and fun, Wheeler said one of her major goals has been making the classes “affordable.”
“We have kids who are taking more than one class, so it is very important that they are affordable,” she said. “Some take every class we offer.”
The participants take part in recitals and competitions, and Wheeler said the additional seven coaches at All Star Gymnastics use only positive techniques.
“We don’t talk to the kids about what they look like or yell at them,” she said. “This is all about self-esteem building.”
Parents and youths in the program are also excited about what it has done for their children and the region.
Jamie Guerrette of Mars Hill has two children in the program. Carly, who is 7, takes part in gymnastics, as does 4-year-old Bobbi. Carly Guerrette said she likes the sport and learning new routines and exercises, while Bobbi enjoys “jumping in the foam pit.”
“I like the coaches,” she said. “They are a little bit of fun and a lot of hard work.”
Jamie Guerrette said she is “amazed and grateful” for all the All Star Gymnastics staff has done for her children and the others who are taking part.
“We have done it all — dance, cheering and gymnastics,” she said. “The girls look forward to class every week. They have increased their self-confidence, learned new skills and have made great friends while at the gym. They work hard each session and can’t wait to show it off at their next recital.”
“I have been really surprised at the response from the community,” Wheeler said. “I didn’t think that I would get the response that I did, and it has been wonderful. The kids have come here, and although they were tentative at first, they have learned to trust us and try new things.”
Wheeler said she would like to see her program continue to grow. She still works full time at her job with a truck brokerage company and spends six to eight hours teaching every night.
“I would love to expand into Caribou and open year-round facilities in other towns,” she said. “Ten years in the future, I’d like to see a solid competitive gymnastics program in The County. But right now, I am very happy. We are off to a good start.”