Marc Sickel (right) and 12-year-old Filippo Raponi

Filippo Raponi steadies his black New Balance sneakers with red laces on what looks like a miniature surfboard. It rocks slightly on invisible waves—side to side, front to back—as the 12-year-old watches for LED lights flashing from discs mounted on the wall in front of him. His eyes dart back and forth, then he hits each blinking disc with his right hand while trying to maintain his balance.

“You’re doing a great job. I’m proud of you, buddy,” says Marc Sickel, founder and owner of Fitness for Health in Rockville. The therapeutic services and training center uses exergaming—fitness through the use of games—to help children and adults, especially those with special needs. Sickel, an athletic trainer, continues to praise the boy throughout the five-minute session, and Filippo mimics him: “Yeah, buddy,” he says. The boy occasionally pauses and claps for himself while smiling. He turns back toward Sickel, 56, and holds up his hand, signaling for a high-five, all while continuing to balance. After the two slap palms, Filippo exclaims “thank you!” with a higher-pitched emphasis on the first word.

Filippo doesn’t realize that he’s exercising. He doesn’t know that he’s working on his low muscle tone and trying to improve his coordination. All he knows is that he’s having fun playing with his friend Marc. The sixth-grader at The Frost School in Rockville has fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes intellectual disabilities and other developmental delays. Filippo’s parents, Amelia Gotti and Paolo Raponi, who live in Potomac, first noticed their youngest son’s problems when he was a baby. “He was not crawling. He was not sitting properly,” Gotti says. After Filippo was diagnosed at 16 months, “it was a very long journey to find the right people.” He didn’t start talking until he was 7; he now speaks in short phrases, not complete sentences. 

When Filippo was about 3, another mom of a child with fragile X recommended Fitness for Health. Gotti was immediately impressed by the staff’s patience with her son, who threw a temper tantrum on their first visit, and was surprised to hear Sickel say he wanted to meet with Filippo’s behavioral therapist. Sickel later helped connect Gotti with someone who advised her on potty-training Filippo, a process that took two years. Over time, Gotti noticed Sickel tweaking the games so he could work on Filippo’s colors, numbers and ABCs in addition to his motor skills.

Nine years after they started working together, Sickel still remembers the way Filippo tried to run away at first, how it took a lot of coaxing at each session just to get him inside. Now the boy can’t wait to arrive.