A little more than 13 years ago, Geri Henry was walking past White Rock Gymnastics, when she decided to pop in and inquire about a job.
Since coming to Canada a few years earlier – she emigrated from Jamaica in 1999 – the former elementary school teacher had worked a few odd jobs – part-time clerk at a department store, among others – but nothing came close to fulfilling her the way her teaching job had.
Not being able to teach in B.C. because she wasn’t properly certified here had come as something of a shock to her upon arrival in her new country – “It was a huge adjustment,” she admits – but she thought the gymnastics studio could help fill the void.
“I had no gymnastics background, absolutely not, but I just knew that I really wanted to work with kids, and thought that anything I could do with them would be a blessing. I talked to the owner and said maybe there was something I could do there – like an after-school program or something. She thought it was a good idea. That’s when I really found my way again.”
White Rock Gymnastics has changed since then – it’s now White Rock Gymnastics and Diving, and is located in a much bigger facility on Croydon Drive in South Surrey – but Henry, now a certified coach, has been a constant.
Every day, she arrives in the morning to lead programs for pre-school aged youngsters, and in mid-afternoon, hops in a van and makes the rounds of Semiahmoo Peninsula elementary schools, picking up kids registered in the after-school gymnastics programs.
“I just love the little kids – they’re my babies,” she says.
And though hundreds of children come through the doors of the gym each week, Henry has a unique gift of remembering nearly everyone’s names.
“There are girls who will come back in, 14 and 15 years old, and Geri will say, ‘Oh, hi Rachel,’ – she remembers their names from when they were here at four or five years old,” says Bev Boys, founder of White Rock Diving.
“Geri is amazing. She’s just an incredible person.”
Henry’s dedication to youth gymnastics was rewarded last week, when she was named recreational coach of the year by Gymnastics BC. She’ll receive the award Nov. 7 at an event in Burnaby.
Not one to bring attention to herself – “It’s all about the kids,” she says – the award came as something of a surprise, she admits.
“So many people get nominated, so I didn’t expect it,” she said, adding that she got a little teary-eyed when fellow staff members discussed nominating her in the first place during a meeting months ago.
Though she did not grow up with younger siblings in Jamaica – Henry is an only child – she says working with young people has always come easy to her, and “is my whole life.”
“When I was four years old, I was teaching all the shrubs in my garden back home.”
After years working as a teacher, Henry came to Canada because her mother, who had come to Canada decades earlier, and had been living in Montreal, decided to move to B.C.
“I didn’t want to move there – it was too cold. So when she moved here, I thought I would come, because who would take care of her when she gets old?”
Henry has one child herself, a 31-year-old son, Roemarr, who lives in Saskatchewan.
Through the years, she’s found that the key to working with children – especially groups of them at a time – is a simple one.
“Patience. Patience, patience, and more patience. Sometimes I’ll have to have 10 cups of patience in the morning, but you have to remember that you were a kid once, too.”
Though it can be challenging at times – as any teacher or coach of youngsters will tell you – Henry relishes the opportunity to wear many different hats, even if it means long days and a few more “cups of patience.”
“You come through the door, and you put on your mommy-coat, and you’re in mommy-mode. And you’re the doctor, the nurse, the teacher, the babysitter, the coach – everything. It comes with the job,” she says.
She also goes out of her way to encourage her athletes in their activities, no matter their age, or if they’re taking part at a competitive level, or simply having fun on the trampoline or foam pit, which she says are the favourite activities of the pre-school crowd.
She has one mantra in particular that she often repeats: “Success is not something you do, it’s something you are.”
“You have to empower them. They’ll say ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ But you just tell them that of course they can, they can do anything – and then they deliver.”
Though she came to White Rock Gymnastics without any experience in the sport, she was a very active child in Jamaica, playing cricket, soccer and track-and-field, and knows the skills and values gymnastics can teach.
“It’s a foundation for all sports, whether you want to be a hockey player, soccer or baseball player. Gymnastics teaches you so many skills – flexibility and balance, strength.”
Rather than look back and wonder how her life would have turned out had she not decided that day to walk through the doors of White Rock Gymnastics, Henry said she instead chooses to “live in the moment” and enjoy her time each day with her young athletes.
“People ask me if I miss having young kids, since my son is grown, and I say, ‘No, I have a lot of kids – all these kids are my babies.”