Who knew you could make influencing the lives of children into a business? Four area women have done just that by combining their passions and experiences with their ambition and enthusiasm for today’s youth.
They have been quietly, diligently going about the business of helping youngsters connect with their creativity, build their bodies and acquire skills that will serve them beyond their youth. Like the children they teach, these women have nurtured their businesses from infancy to adulthood with great success.
“Kids have to move to learn to move.”
It’s not every day you meet someone who ran away and joined the circus. That’s what Lorna Spellman, founder of Boerne Gymnastics, did when she was 18. Well, sort of — she didn’t run away (that was for dramatic effect), but she did join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus as an acrobat. “I competed in gymnastics throughout high school, and they [Ringling Bros.] offered me a position during my first year of college,” recalls Spellman. “I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime and took it.”
Naturally, everyone wonders what her parents thought of her joining the circus.”My dad was really into acrobatics and gymnastics. Growing up, we thought it was normal to stand on your father’s shoulders and do flips,” she laughs. “He was responsible for helping get the first gymnastics programs started in Indiana
where I grew up, so he was extremely supportive about the circus.”
Spellman trained with a professional stuntman in California before learning the choreography and dance moves from Ringling Bros. Her job was aerial work, which included elephant riding, web rope routines and 35-foot high dives. She lived on the circus train, traveling and performing throughout North America. “It was the greatest experience of my life at that time. I loved getting to know the other performers, 80 percent of whom were not from the United States. It was gratifying to work with people who were seriously dedicated to their craft,” she says. It was also the perfect springboard for her future endeavors.
LOVE COMES TO TOWN
Spellman’s circus days were short-lived, however. She had met the man who was to be her husband before she left for the circus. After a year of performing and traveling, she traded in her sequined leotard for a coach’s uniform. She taught gymnastics in California and had her own gymnastics business in Louisiana for eight years before moving to Texas.
“My daughter was 3 years old, and I was pregnant with my son when we moved to Boerne. The plan was for me to retire from coaching and be a stay-at-home mom,” remembers Spellman. “After my son was born, that lasted for about six months. Then word got out that I used to teach gymnastics, and before I knew it, a friend talked me into coaching her kids, and it just kept going from there.” That was 24 years ago.
After a few years of part-time coaching, Spellman knew she wanted to build a full-time gymnastics business. “We purchased land and started drawing up plans for the gym. I can remember typing out my business plan on a Commodore 64 computer,” she recalls with a laugh.
Spellman readily acknowledges that you wouldn’t normally find a gym as large as Boerne Gymnastics in a town the size of Boerne. “When I started this, I did it with the intention of being here a long time. We looked around and saw karate classes and dance studios that would start and then go belly-up in a few years. I didn’t want to disappoint the kids who worked hard and got involved or the parents who invested time and money in uniforms, lessons and competitions,” she says. “A lot of people believed in what we were trying to do. We were able to get a loan and build the size and type of facility that has contributed to our success.”
Although establishing and growing the business often took away from family time, she knows in the long run her family sees the benefits and appreciates the future potential it offers. With a staff of 12, Spellman and her coaches teach about 400 students yearround. Boerne Gymnastics offers parents’ and tots’ classes; traditional boys’ and girls’ gymnastics, where children learn Olympic events such as vault, bars, beam and floor; and a circus arts program.
Spellman strives to stay on the leading edge of the sport and started offering acrobatic gymnastics five years ago after luring two coaches from Bulgaria, Radostina Lachkova and Rumen Lachkov. The program has matured, and four dedicated students qualified for the USA Gymnastics National Team and recently competed in an international acrobatic gymnastic competition called the Freedom Cup.
“Investing in professionals, ensuring the environment and equipment are safe and offering innovative programs like our Gym Bus program have made all the difference,” she says. “Parents will drive a long way for a program that is good for their kids.” In addition to locals, Spellman has students from San Antonio, Bandera and Comfort. The steady growth and scores of former students who are returning to sign up their
young children are a testament to the quality of her program.
Part of Spellman’s success is her willingness to experiment and innovate. Take the Gym Bus program her daughter manages: “I thought it was important for children to get exposure to gymnastics early. So many kids go to day care these days, and many parents don’t have the extra time or energy to pick them up and take them to classes. So we converted a bus and put a minigym inside. We drive to day cares and hold classes in the bus; the kids love it!”
She also has plans to expand the building to include a deep pit for higher- level training and more workout
space so they can offer a family fitness program. “Parents are always commenting how they wish there was a class for them so they didn’t just sit there while their kids were having so much fun. Family fitness will be a class where kids can work on skills while parents get a cardio and strength-training workout,” says Spellman.
Her advice for someone looking into business focused on children? “You must do something you enjoy and honestly believe in,” she advises. “It’s easy to teach something and promote it when you’ve seen the results firsthand. I believe gymnastics is the foundation for all other sports. Kids develop strength, balance, flexibility and coordination with gymnastics, but they also build self-confidence, learn social skills, and when they get really involved, they gain life skills like self-discipline and time management that translate into real achievement.”
LISA LOPEZ MARES
Artworks: An Art Studio for Children
“Teaching creativity for life.”
You hear Lisa Mares’ roundabout story of how she came to establish Artworks, and somehow the Grateful Dead’s What a long, strange trip it’s been springs to mind.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at St. Mary’s University, Mares considered pursuing a law career, “but I decided arguing with adults didn’t appeal to my true self,” she says with a laugh. Instead she started a catering business in 1987 and three years later established a neighborhood home child care business before she had children.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” she admits. “They asked why I would want to take care of a bunch of kids all day when I had a college degree, but I could see there was a need for quality child care in my neighborhood, and I loved being with children.”
Since she also had an English degree and had been a middle school teacher, Mares decided art, reading and writing would be a great summer experience. She put catering on the back burner and billed her program as art enrichment and also tutored children ages 8-12 in reading and writing. She transitioned to ages 2-5 that fall and did every art project imaginable. She used art to teach math, science, reading, writing and social studies.
“The parents were amazed. Actually I was amazed too!” laughs Mares. “I found that project-based education taught selfdiscipline and helped children with time management. I was enjoying myself so much I sold the catering company and did art enrichment child care fulltime.”
In the summer of 1992, Lisa became a nationally accredited family child care provider. One of the projects for the accreditation was to research a business that could be started in the community that would benefit children and parents. She didn’t have to dig deep for the project since parents had already been asking her to do art parties.
“I advertised in Our Kids magazine for mobile art parties, and the phone rang off the wall,” she recalls. “My husband, Steve, kept suggesting I start an art studio. He went in search of a commercial location and found the perfect space. Honestly, I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to start something like that at the time, but he badgered me for an entire month to check out the space. I finally went to look at it so he would quit mentioning it.” After seeing the retail space at Carousel Court on Nacogdoches Road inside Loop 410, Mares agreed with her husband that it was time San Antonio had an art studio for children.
Why art? Why did Mares pursue an artbased business rather than something else, such as tutoring? She says while she was doing child care, she had an “ah-ha’ moment. “I saw an opportunity to educate parents and child care professionals about the impact of hands-on creative thinking,” says Mares. “For me, art was the natural vehicle. You can learn everything through art. It’s the only subject where you can (and should) use all of your senses. It brings the world to the participant like no other activity can. Math, history, science and pure wonder are just some of things you can learn through art. It also meets the learning styles of most children.”
Mares says the first three years were the hardest. “In the beginning there were crayons and paper and parents who did not understand that there is more to art than drawing,” she says. “I’ve had three businesses
and worked in the corporate world. I know perseverance and the right flow are essential. I started to realize that parents needed to be educated on the mere subject of art. I had to tell them, “Children need art. It makes them see and hear, it helps to instill compassion, it teaches sharing, it helps them cope, it helps them think, and you should do art too.’ Once they understood, they got it, and Artworks grew.”
A HAVEN IN A PAINT-BY-NUMBER WORLD
Artworks caters to a multitude of audiences, including early childhood, tweens, families, Scout troops and home school programs. From birthday parties to field trips, art night out and parents’ night out to summer camps, Artworks has filled a void for parents and children in the community.
Artworks continues to expand and grow. Mares began franchising the business in 2006 after one of her clients asked to buy a location. She started researching the idea, and a SCORE small business counselor told her it couldn’t be done. “I went to my business attorney, and he said it would cost me $15,000 to prepare the legal documents,” says Mares incredulously. “I said no way am I paying that, I’ll write the documents myself.” Her attorney believed in her and said he’d see her in a month or two. “Two weeks later I emailed him the finished documents. He was skeptical. I told him to call me in 48 hours and give me a grade after he’d reviewed them. He did just that, almost to the minute, and said he would give me a B+!” she says proudly. The second Artworks location opened off Bandera Road last year, and a third opened in Garden Ridge at Bracken Village earlier this year. Mares plans to sell the original location so she can concentrate on expanding Artworks through franchising.
Like the other women in this article, Lisa Mares is passionate about her work. “I came to the conclusion that someone has to do it — give children an avenue for creative thinking in a supportive environment. The reality is, schools are pressed for dollars and time, and parents often do not know where to start,” she says. “Hands-on activities are often a pastime that we are too busy to take the time to enjoy … or clean up after!
“Children are happy and content when doing art and when they’re at Artworks,” says Mares. “I’m pleased to offer a space where children can dream, play and imagine.”
Love to Swim School
“Building happy, confident, masterful, lifelong swimmers.”
Water has always been a part of Mary Reilly-Magee’s life. Born and raised in the west suburbs of Chicago, she had a mother who was adamant that her children know how to swim because she never learned how. “I look back and think, “Wow, what an incredible, beautiful gift she gave to me,'” says Reilly-Magee, who has spent the last 22 years teaching swimming to the young and old of San Antonio.
But like so many others who wind up on a path they didn’t intend to follow, Reilly- Magee considered swimming only a sideline, not the main event. In high school she was a lifeguard; then she moved to Texas for college. She taught swimming while earning her bachelor’s degree in English from UTSA. Then it was on to a master’s degree in English literature. “Everyone asked me if I was going to teach,” recalls Reilly-Magee. “I said no. I’m going to get a real job once I finish my degree.”
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
She taught English for five years at Holmes High School, as well as coaching the swim and water polo teams. She also became the program director of night swim lessons for Northside Aquatics, where she developed an adult swim lesson program. “I kind of think of myself as a George Block disciple,” she says of
Northside Independent School District’s director of aquatics and one of the founders of the San Antonio Sports Foundation. “He’s been my mentor for many years and taught me how the sport of swimming develops people and influences character. He gave me the opportunity to teach and mold children and adults.”
About six years ago Reilly-Magee had an epiphany. “I finally accepted that teaching people the lifelong and lifesaving skill of swimming is what I’m meant to do, and in order to do that successfully I needed the right environment — warm water and warm air,” she explains. “You cannot teach babies in the same pool in which you’re running competitive swimming. It’s tough teaching kids in cold water because they’re all rigid and stiff, not to mention unhappy about the cold. A child’s comfort level is a huge part of the learning process.”
She started looking for “water to rent” and ended up at the Bandera Pointe Spectrum. “But I couldn’t control the air or water temperature there either. It was such a bummer because you want to give kids every advantage so they can be successful. Freezing kids don’t have fun in the water,” says Reilly-Magee. She contacted a commercial real estate agent and starting searching for her own place.
She found what she thought was the perfect location in a neighborhood by Sea World that had a pool as part of the homeowners association. The association didn’t have the funds to keep the pool open, so she tried to rent or buy the space.”Ultimately they elected to fill it in with dirt. I was devastated,” she remembers.
By this time she knew she wanted to build a highly customized indoor facility, with a small, shallow pool equipped with a teaching ledge and another larger pool— both of which are a balmy 92 degrees. She explored a number of options and nearly sealed a deal at a stand-alone location, but says, “I woke up one night and knew it wasn’t the right place. The landlord was already giving me a hard time about my plans; things weren’t clicking.”
She walked away and did a week of shopping therapy. Then one of the locations she had negotiated with called her to say they were interested in coming up with some creative solutions. Love to Swim School now resides at 15502 Huebner Road next to a variety of other businesses.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
That is to say, Reilly-Magee is always striving to make sure her clients feel they are getting their money’s worth at Love to Swim School. “We spend a lot of time educating parents on the curriculum because they often have unrealistic expectations. Many parents think two weeks of swim lessons in the summer should suffice. But really, what’s your expectation of proficiency after eight hours of instruction over two weeks?” she asks. “Learning to swim is analogous to learning to read or playing an instrument. Our program is not for everyone because we are dedicated to producing masterful, lifelong swimmers, and that takes time. We have a proven technique that breaks each part down. Each skill is a building block for the next. Over time, that results in real mastery and, thus, safety. This gives parents peace of mind and also results in strong, confident swimmers.”
That fierce determination to delivering quality means she makes a sizable commitment to ongoing training for her staff of 41, 35 of whom are coaches. “That’s been one of the more difficult things to accept with this business — that staffing is cyclical,” she confesses. “Ensuring we have highly trained, professional coaches
means we’re constantly building and rebuilding. It’s a big investment in time and money but ultimately worth it.”
For those thinking of starting a childfocused business, Reilly-Magee says to do your research. “And you really have to love what you do,” she stresses. “Most days are going to be great. But if you don’t love it, those bad days will put you out. And it’s important to remember when dealing with parents that they’re giving you their two most precious things, their child and their money. You have to have a healthy respect for that.”
BEYOND TREADING WATER
She says the first year at the new site was the roughest because she had to sacrifice a lot of time with her husband and two children to build the business. “My family definitely made sacrifices so I could realize this dream, but I think they’re proud of what we’ve built,” she says. In fact, before she opened, she hosted a “thank you” gathering and made sure her then 9-year-old daughter was there to see how many people it took to put the business together. “None of this would have happened without their support,” she declares.
After a year and half, Reilly-Magee says she finally has some breathing room and is even contemplating a second location. She is quick not to take all the credit for the business: “I’m blessed to have a fantastic staff who have played a huge role in developing the business and making our vision a reality.” San Antonio’s families are fortunate to have such a resource, and to think, it’s all because “my mom decided to teach me how to swim,” winks Reilly-Magee.
DOROTHY “DOTTIE” MCKINLEY
Walden Pond InterArts
“Workshops in a loving, intimate, creatively challenging environment devoted to the uniqueness of every child.”
Serendipity led Dorothy McKinley, or “Dottie,” as the children call her, to her true calling — teaching. Born and raised in San Antonio during a time when many women didn’t envision themselves with careers outside the home, McKinley made a number of fortunate discoveries and accidental contacts that led her to found Walden Pond InterArts Learning Center 22 years ago.
“My teaching career started when I ran into one of my old professors from the University of Texas at Austin who was teaching at San Antonio College. He said they had a job opening, and he thought I should come in for an interview,” McKinley remembers. “I had no plans to work as I still had my master’s thesis in fine art to do, not to mention I had never taught before and was terrified of public speaking.” To her chagrin she got the job, and they gave her five courses to teach, including art history. That’s when she says God kicked her in the pants: “It was really hard on me. I had no curriculum, no syllabus — but I got over my fear of public speaking!” The experience boosted her confidence and laid the groundwork for successes to come.
She quit San Antonio College when her first son was born. That’s when her husband of six years lost his job … a really good job that would have enabled her to stay home with her baby. “He came home and announced I needed to go out and get a job. I was terrified!” recalls McKinley.”I wasn’t raised to think like that. I only saw myself as a mother and an artist.” She was desperate and went through a threeday period of serious soul-searching: “Then I saw it in an instant — I knew I was supposed to teach children.”
The dominoes started to fall into place when days later she ran into one of her former teachers from Saint Mary’s Hall. “I told her to call me if they needed an art teacher, not thinking anything would come of it since Saint Mary’s Hall already had one that was practically an institution,” she says. To her surprise she received a call two weeks later saying the other teacher was retiring. McKinley taught art parttime to grades one through seven at Saint Mary’s Hall for six years. “It was perfect because I didn’t want to leave my baby too long,” she says.
McKinley knew she wanted to have her own school, and the foundation for her proprietary InterArts curriculum began to unfold. She rented space and opened the Creative Eye Art School for children ages 3-13. She taught art every Saturday for 10 years while working part-time for Saint Mary’s and then for St. David’s Episcopal School. During that time she also had her second son. “I was exhausted and in tears. I never had a weekend with my own children and was getting burned out,” she says ruefully. She gave up the Creative Eye and went to work fulltime for San Antonio Academy of Texas.
THE PERFECT POND
After six years at the Academy, she knew it was time to go out on her own. And, as with the other businesswomen in this article, the right location was key. “I knew nature was going to be a big part of the curriculum,” says McKinley, who has been greatly influenced by the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau. “I wanted the classrooms to feel as though they were part of nature; I wanted a pond and animals on the property too.”
She had to act fast and open by summer because she wanted to take advantage of her following from the Academy. “I didn’t want to rent space. I wanted to buy it as an investment for the future,” she says. With her husband’s full support and a loan from his mother, she went shopping for the perfect location with a former colleague who had since become a real estate agent. McKinley recalls, “She took me to six properties. I didn’t even get out of the car for the first five. I’m sure she saved the best for last because it had a swimming pool and backed up to Brackenridge Park. I knew it was mine. I had no doubt in my mind.”
Walden Pond opened at the idyllic 3546 Avenue B location near the Witte Museum that summer and has been expanding the innate creative potential of children ever since. McKinley’s InterArts method is an interdisciplinary approach to learning that uses experiential immersion in various subject areas, themes and periods of history. Children ages 3 to 12 are encouraged to explore, experiment and express themselves verbally and visually.
For instance, Walden Pond’s summer workshops focused on nature’s wonders, and each week was dedicated to a different part of the world. During the “Wonders of Alaska” week, children were surrounded by glorious glaciers made of Styrofoam and cold-loving wood, plastic and stuffed animals that the children could touch. They created masterpieces out of paint, leaves and twigs, all to the calming sounds of nature in the background.
“The curriculum is built on the premise that all children are born with the gift of creativity,” explains McKinley. “If you don’t help children stay in touch with their creative core, the part that is inherently comfortable making hundreds of choices while making a drawing, then they become stifled by the third grade.” She believes creative expression builds a strong foundation of self-esteem and confidence that helps children manifest their own dreams and visions as they grow older. “It’s not the end result that matters,” she says of the art created at Walden Pond. “It’s the process of creation, pulling the head and the heart together, that really matters.”
The longevity of the program, as well as the students who now span multiple generations, speak volumes about how McKinley’s Walden Pond has transcended her original vision.
Author: Kelly A. Goff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams