Break the Barriers: Where Disabilities Become Abilities

Mar 27, 2013 No Comments by

FRESNO – Deby Hergenrader noticed from an early age that her younger sister Kathy, who had Downs syndrome, was discouraged from being involved in certain activities because of her ability level.

NFL quarterback Tim Tebow will be the keynote speaker for the Inaugural Inspire Gala, being held on April 5 and benefiting Break the Barriers and Fresno Christian Schools.

From taking swimming lessons at Fresno High School to boating at Roeding Park, it was suggested that Kathy go to a “special place.”  Hergenrader felt it was unfair, but took some advice from her mother, former Ice Capades performer Carmie Mullen.

“You can’t change the world by being angry,” Mullen said.  “You need to show them a better way.”

Hergenrader eventually found that better way.  She was a competitive gymnast who coached her younger sister on the side.  Hergenrader was so talented that she made the Olympic Trials in 1972, but had to retire after suffering an ankle injury.  Her husband Steve, who is a former catcher and center fielder for the New York Yankees, suggested they turn their backyard into a gymnastics training ground for people with all abilities.  It started out as little more than a balance beam, a trampoline and some mattresses.

At the time, Special Olympics International contacted Hergenrader, saying they were adding the sport of gymnastics.  Hergenrader’s 20 athletes in all age brackets ended up dominating, winning all the gold medals, and Kathy did exceptionally well.  Movie stars, judges and other coaches all wanted to know how they became such fine gymnasts.

“Our athletes became excellent because they have the gift of imitating, and our Special Olympians were imitating the competitive gymnasts,” Hergenrader said.

Sign language eventually became one of the main ways Hergenrader’s students communicated, some of the children being deaf or hard of hearing.  In 1985 what Hergenrader was doing became the non-profit known as Break the Barriers, which took in people of various abilities.  It has become a place where people are nurtured, and they find themselves discovering talents within them they previously had not known were there.

Deby Hergenrader

“People have been given many gifts and abilities, but the problem is a lack of opportunity to develop those gifts,” Hergenrader said.

Break the Barriers broke ground on its current facility in Fresno in 2002, and it opened its doors in 2003.  It offers its visitors a performing arts stage, a performing arts room, and an aquatic area for swimming.  Participants can brush up on a variety of physical skills, including archery, basketball, volleyball, tennis, martial arts, weightlifting and dance.  Break the Barriers is for all people of all ages, and not just for those who have special needs.  It offers a mentoring and outreach program, where mentors spend time with and befriend Break the Barriers  members.  Many of these mentors are from local colleges.  It has also partnered with Cornerstone Church for a program for inner-city at-risk youth.

“The magic happens when everyone comes together and everything’s left outside the door when they come in,” Hergenrader said.

Break the Barriers’ positive influence has stretched beyond just the central California region.  The Barrier Breakers team has performed internationally in places like Romania, China and South Africa.  But they travel for more than just the purpose of just performing.

“We go to build relationships so we can help them make a change,” Hergenrader said.

Hergenrader says approximately 2,000 – 3,000 people come through the facility each week, and thousands more congregate in after-school programs on area campuses.  There are up to 80 staff members, depending on the time of year; and newborns, senior citizens and everyone in between participate.

This year, Break the Barriers and Fresno Christian Schools have collaborated on a fundraising event featuring National Football League quarterback Tim Tebow.  The Inaugural Inspire Gala, thought up by Fresno Christian Schools graduate Dawn Steele, is expected to draw between 800 – 1,000 people to the Fresno Convention Center’s New Exhibit Hall at 7 p.m. on April 5.  It is a black tie optional gathering, and the funds raised will be split between Break the Barriers and Fresno Christian Schools.

Tebow was chosen as the evening’s keynote speaker in part because of his Tim Tebow Foundation, which is for children with various abilities.

“His heart is for kids with special needs, and that was the idea to look up Tim Tebow,” Hergenrader said.

For more information on Break the Barriers, visit  To order tickets to the Inspire Gala, click on this link  

Education, Entertainment, Headlines, Non Profit, Sports

About the author

James Olinger is a native of the San Joaquin Valley. He graduated from West Hills College in Coalinga, California in 2000 with an associate's degree in liberal arts. He joined Business Street in 2004 as a staff writer, and became the associate editor in 2007. He maintains that position today, writing for Business Street Online in a variety of topics.
No Responses to “Break the Barriers: Where Disabilities Become Abilities”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.