Balancing Act

Gymnastics May Benefit Autistic Children

Preliminary finds of a Creighton study indicate that participating in gymnastics may benefit children with autism. Read more here.

Balancing Act

OT graduate, business owner, mother of four
inspired by kindness and tragedy

By Eugene Curtin

Never underestimate the power of a chat. Metro Stars Gymnastics, which today operates at two sprawling locations in the Omaha metro area and serves about 2,500 students, is the result of much effort and sacrifice by the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Hladky Lilla and Erik Lilla.

But a little help along the way never hurts. Elizabeth, 37, a 2003 occupational therapy graduate, a mother of four (ages 4, 6, 8 and 10) and a successful business owner, is quick to credit divine guidance — recalling the evening when a few brief words with former Creighton University President the Rev. Michael G. Morrison, SJ, saved her occupational therapy studies.

She was attending an annual banquet hosted by the G. Robert Muchemore Foundation, which provides scholarships to undergraduate students and which had supported her undergraduate education. But she was moving straight into Creighton’s newly launched, entry-level OT clinical doctorate program. The problem was financing, because the Muchemore scholarship did not apply to postgraduate courses, and so when Fr. Morrison, getting ready to depart the banquet, said he looked forward to seeing her “next year,” Elizabeth explained the problem.

 To which Fr. Morrison said, “Let me see what I can do.”

“I didn’t really think anything of it,” Elizabeth said. “He was a busy man and had more things to worry about than me, but then I got a phone call saying he had worked it out with the Muchemore Foundation, and the scholarship would continue.”

It was a welcome kindness, and a respite from a run of hardship and sadness that had seen Elizabeth endure for nine years the slow death of her father from kidney cancer, and in 1997 the near death of her closest friend in a horrific car accident.

 It was her friend’s brush with death that turned Elizabeth to OT.

Her friend is largely recovered now, Elizabeth said, and is the mother of a little boy. But in 1998, when the friend graduated from a suburban high school in Denver, a year after the accident, she could barely walk across the stage to receive her diploma. Some time later, Elizabeth would ask her a fateful question: “What was the biggest help in your recovery?”

“My occupational therapist,” her friend replied.

“That was what got her through,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t know anything about OT, but I decided to look into it.” She narrowed her choice to a school in Minnesota and Creighton, where her family members were all within reach. She chose Creighton.

Her Doctor of Occupational Therapy degree proved a useful foundation after her soon-to-be husband, Erik, who held a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Nebraska Omaha, called to tell her that people are not meant merely to work and die.

It was a philosophical rumination that opened a whole new path of risk and opportunity. Erik did not believe he would be happy as a mechanical engineer, and he did not want to go to graduate school. Instead, he wanted to open a gym. He meant it. Elizabeth realized he meant it. And so she said OK.

It was 2002, and Erik and Elizabeth were about to embark on a journey that would soon see Erik rising at 4 a.m. to work as a personal trainer and Elizabeth working full time in occupational therapy, both spending additional time at their newly opened and very modest suburban Omaha gym — 1,500 square feet, including bathrooms, lobby and office space.

The gym was Erik’s idea, but Elizabeth took to it easily. A gymnast herself, she had always loved the sport, and the idea of running a gymnasium for eager kids was appealing. She had coached the sport since she was 13 years old and was ready and able when she and Erik opened the first Metro Stars Gymnastics in Millard in 2006.

It would be, they both decided, a school for everyone.

“Every kid who walks through that door is important, whether it’s an 18-month-old toddler whose mother needs to get out of the house, all the way to a child who wants to compete in the Olympics,” she said. “We work with kids with special needs too.”

In fact, Metro Stars helped with a Creighton study on the benefits of gymnastics for kids with autism (see article here).

The day does not pass, Elizabeth said, that she does not marvel at what she and her husband have built. But she remains conscious of her wider world, of Fr. Morrison’s intervention, of her husband’s vigorous work ethic, and of her extended family members who helped with childcare while she and Erik were building their business.

“It takes a village,” she said. “No way I could have done this by myself.”