December 11, 2023
Friends - Austin Youth Meets Simone Biles
Meet Antonio, a resilient 10-year-old enrolled with Friends of the Children – Austin's chapter. He’s been with the program since kindergarten and was selected based on a number of obstacles he faced, including financial hardships, an unstable housing situation, and challenges at school. Antonio loves to learn but has a hard time with self-regulation and he struggles with anxiety.
Two years ago, Antonio was matched with his professional mentor or “Friend,” Anders, who understood Antonio's initial shyness and fear of rejection. He realized that Antonio's love for positive attention made him the perfect candidate for a mentor and opportunity for growth. Together, they discovered physical exercise and art are powerful tools in helping Antonio manage emotions.
Antonio’s passion for dance and art led to Friends - Austin enrolling him into a summer gymnastics camp. He fell in love with gymnastics and the parallel bars quickly became his favorite. He practices gymnastics at home, at school, and even participated in gymnastics camp again this past summer.
Friend Anders says that the turning point in his relationship with Antonio came when they attended the Breakfast of Champions event in Spring, Texas. Not only did Antonio overcome his social anxiety, but he also got to meet World Champion gymnast Simone Biles. The day was a big milestone for him – he finally felt brave enough to ask her a question about how she got her start in gymnastics on her first team and how she made it to the Olympics. After the Q&A, there was an opportunity for him to get a picture with Simone, but Antonio was very nervous and hesitant. His Friend Anders gave him some encouragement and he snuck in at the last minute to get his photo with Simone.
Before the Breakfast of Champions event, Antonio didn’t go on many outings because of his anxiety, and this was the one of the first times he was able to do something as a group with the other youth in the Friends – Austin program. It helped ignite a sense of belonging that Anders hadn’t seen in Antonio before. The outing showed Antonio that outside the program, his hero Simone Biles, loved Friends of the Children, and it was a huge highlight for him. Antonio began to see that his struggles don’t have to hold him back as he reaches for his hopes and dreams.
Antonio loved when Simone talked about mental health and about how it is a part of you - because Antonio holds feelings of blame and shame about his mental health challenges. Anders’ goal is to continue to work with him to feel empowered and realize that his challenges are something to embrace and work with rather than work around. Anders said it was inspiring to see Antonio light up around Simone because he was able to see that there was a possibility for who he could be in the future.
Antonio was so excited after meeting Simone and getting his picture taken with her that he didn’t want to take his Friends of the Children shirt off for a week after the event. He showed all his friends at school the signed Simone Biles sweatshirt he received in his gift bag. Antonio couldn’t wait to see Simone again a few months later on the Zoom call with youth during National Foster Care and Mental Health Month. He even brought another youth from the Friends – Austin cohort with him to the call.
Antonio continues to be an amazing artist and goes after anything he does with his whole heart! He is dreaming big and hopes to one day become an art teacher or music teacher – and maybe an Olympic gymnast. Antonio wants to continue to go to gymnastics camp each summer until he gets old enough to make the gymnastics team. Thanks to Anders – and Simone – Antonio’s spark has been ignited, empowering the possibilities for his future.