It’s a widely known fact that childhood experiences help shape who we become as adults. From what foods we eat to what motivates us, those experiences inform decisions we make throughout our lives. For Nicole Denicolo, ’14, and Jennifer Dickson, ’14, experiences are helping create a more inclusive future. 

Denicolo spent most of her younger days helping with her family’s business. As she watched her father work with unending zeal at a job he loved, she grew to admire his work ethic and aspired to love her career equally as much. She yearned to find a path that was both impactful and fulfilling, and she began to imagine the possibilities.

Nicole Denicolo, ’14; Jennifer Dickson, ’14; Barbara Dickson of Rock the Spectrum

When Dickson’s youngest brother Lenny was diagnosed with autism, she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to helping individuals with special needs. From attending his therapy sessions to contributing at home, Dickson gave her all to supporting her brother’s development. And after witnessing her brother’s progress each day, she knew she wanted to carry that dedication into her career.

Denicolo and Dickson, childhood friends, both entered college knowing they wanted to help people, but they had no idea how far that desire would take them. Dickson chose to start her journey at another nearby college. Though she was eager to get to work, she found herself struggling in the new environment. She felt lost among the large classes, and she lacked a real connection to campus life.

Denicolo chose to start her journey at La ­Salle. Each day she met challenges, but she felt supported to overcome them and mature as a person. The small class sizes and close-knit community gave Denicolo personalized attention to guide her toward success, but the Summit Program was the solidifying factor that helped her transition into college life. 

“During my first year I was a part of the Summit Program, which became the foundation of my success at La ­Salle,” Denicolo said. “The faculty provided tools and support throughout the year as well as check-ins to stay on target.” The Summit Program offers students a more facilitated transition from high school to college life. The program provides structured support within a challenging academic setting to targeted first-year students.

Inspired by the resources and guidance Denicolo experienced at La ­Salle, Dickson chose to transfer. Together again and hitting their stride, the two excelled as psychology majors in the School of Arts and Sciences. After years of hard work, they not only found a passion for their field but also a great job as well. The day after graduation both women immediately started positions at Special People In the Northeast (SPIN) Inc. 

As part of the therapeutic support staff at SPIN Inc., Denicolo and Dickson work one-on-one with children in the classroom. But SPIN offers a multitude of opportunities to get involved and help others. Through SPIN, Dickson worked at a summer camp for children with special needs. Though she loved it there, she knew there was a greater purpose to be discovered. 

“This camp is so great,” Dickson said, “but wouldn’t it be nice if there was a place that kids with special needs could go to all year round? What if they had some place to go with their families to get their energy out in a productive way?”

Denicolo immediately began looking for a way to bring that dream to fruition. She came across We Rock the Spectrum and knew it was the right fit for their goal. We Rock the Spectrum is a gym franchise that supplies sensory-based equipment for children with special needs. The gym includes suspended equipment with swings for balance and vestibular treatment, a zip line for stress release and relaxation, a trampoline for building leg and core strength, indoor play structures for climbing and increasing playground skills and sensory-based toys for improved auditory processing and fine motor skills. Excited at that new prospect, Denicolo and Dickson enlisted Dickson’s mother, Barbara Dickson, to help with the business aspects. 

Acquiring a franchise is not easy under typical circumstances. But for a company that serves such a specific population, the process was even more difficult. Beyond finding the right space and securing a small business loan to get the gym up and running, Denicolo, Dickson and Barbara Dickson also had to pass extensive vetting by We Rock the Spectrum’s CEO, Dina Kimmel. To ensure purity in purpose of each franchise owner, Kimmel personally chooses each applicant. But after speaking to the three, she was convinced they could make a difference. 

On Nov. 11, the Northeast Philadelphia location of We Rock the Spectrum celebrated its two-year anniversary. Over that time, the three equal owners have learned what it means to be business owners and community partners. They’ve learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to operating the business and just how important their role in the community is. 

“All of the kids are learning from each other,” said Dickson. “The typical kids are learning to have patience and understanding for kids that are a little different than them. The kids with special needs get that social interaction and play that they don’t always get.” Watching their regulars grow has become a joy for the women and has pushed them to continue to work their hardest every day. 

If running their own business wasn’t enough, Denicolo and Dickson both continue to work part time at SPIN Inc. 

“I started SPIN the day after my La ­Salle graduation,” Denicolo said. “When I accepted the job I thought it would be a great postgrad work experience but didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it. Working with children with special needs has become a passion which opened up the possibility for We Rock the Spectrum.” Their incredible efforts impact lives every day. “At our gym we promote full inclusion and hope that families can learn from each other’s experiences,” Denicolo says. “I hope that the community sees that we are a place for all children to play safely.