Of Big Mats and Longevity – 20 Years of Academy MetroWest
A confluence of two seemingly unrelated events made this week a momentous one for us here at Academy MetroWest. This past Tuesday, we finished up our school year program. It marked the end of our 20th year running weekly social skills groups. We start our summer program on June 23rd so, technically, we have to get through the next 7 weeks before we’ve officially completed 20 years of operations. But still, the school year program occupies most of our year and we’re feeling pretty good about this accomplishment.
The other momentous event of the week happened on Wednesday when we accepted delivery of a new crash pad or, as we usually call it, a new big mat. For us, this is a big deal. It was really time for a new one. Our mats take a beating and the old one was starting to become pretty disreputable. Big mats are big ticket items and we had put off buying a new one as long as we could. But after 20 years of getting stomped on and beaten on by our kids and staff, time had really taken its toll and it forced us to figure out how to finance the purchase of a new one.
After 20 years, our poor, suffering old big mat is finally about to be retired.
It’s being replaced by this nice, shiny new one.
Big mats play a big part in our groups and activities. All our social skills groups take place in our gym and use cooperative, non-competitive games as a means of helping kids view themselves in a more positive light and learn to interact more effectively with their peers. Big mats can be a landing pad in some of our challenge courses that involve kids jumping off high places. They can be the foundation for forts or safe areas in our tag games and cooperative problem solving games. They can be arenas for wrestling games, barriers for obstacle courses, and any number of other things we need them to be. As you can see from the photographic evidence above, our kids had put the old one through the wringer. It served valiantly but after awhile, we learned that even duct tape has its limits in the world of equipment maintenance. Right now, the new big mat has all the cushion you’d find in any conventional brick or concrete block but our camp kids will teach it a thing or two over the next few weeks I’m sure.
The story of how we came into possession of our old big mat is a good one and it’s a nice illustration of how things tend to go when you start a new business. We started running groups back in 1994. My partner, Gary Steinberg, and I had been colleagues for 6 years at The Academy of Physical and Social Development in Newton, MA, running groups very similar to the ones we conduct now. For a number of different reasons, we wanted to open a branch on our own. We spent a few months negotiating a license agreement with our old boss and opened up shop in September of 1994. The license agreement created a structure that enabled us to get started but it was expensive for us. At first, we didn’t have a lot of kids coming through our door so our operating budget was very limited. We had one old big mat that we inherited as part of the license agreement but couldn’t afford another.
One day, a friend of Gary’s let us know about a guy he knew in South Boston who had a couple of used big mats he wanted to sell. We took a trip down to meet him and check out the mats. I can’t remember his name but he was a repo man. He dealt mostly in repossessed office equipment but had somehow gotten his hands on these mats. They were good mats and, at the time, were in good shape. The repo man asked us to make him an offer and we offered $600 for the pair. This was WAY below market value, even for used mats of this size. But we weren’t lying when we told him that this was all we could afford. He declined the offer but called us back a month or so later after trying unsuccessfully to find another buyer. We got the mats for our asking price and for 20 years, they have been workhorses for us. They have done their time.
When we bought those mats, Bill Clinton was in the midst of his first presidential term. When you mentioned the name OJ Simpson, you still thought of a football hero. I was 31 years old, living in an apartment just outside the Boston city line. I was single (“alone and desperate” as my wife would tell you). Now I’m 51, I live in a house in the suburbs, I’m married, and have a daughter. Since 1994, we’ve worked with nearly 2000 kids in our school year program and have had about 450 kids attend our summer program. In 20 years of spending as much time with each other as we do with our wives and children, Gary and I have not killed each other and, in fact, remain very close friends. The story of our transition from a new business struggling to keep the doors open to our position today as an established area resource for kids and families is not a linear one. There have been – and there continue to be – ups and downs along the way. But the other day we posted news about finishing 20 years of the group program on our Facebook page and in response we received some monumentally gratifying feedback about our program and our work. In the realm of the human services, accomplishments are not always tangible and easy to measure so when we read the feedback we got from clients, staff, and friends from the past 20 years, it absolutely made our day.
Our new big mat has some big shoes to fill.