The Time Of Their Lives

When you’re a parent with a young child, one of the nicest aspects of fi nding an activity or an enrichment program that you and your child like is that it can be a step toward meeting new friends (for either of you), and even becoming part of something greater, a community of like-minded parents, a place that enriches your life beyond the life of the class itself. What kind of place offers all that? Well, here’s a hint: it starts with the owners. Are they hands-on? Friendly? Do they care passionately about what they’ve created? Do they treat their facility like a community, or just a business? Do they find ways of giving back? Michael and Bonni Branciforte are these kinds of owners, and it’s refl ected in the success and popularity of their pride and joy, the family-friendly oasis on the Upper East Side which houses their lovely three-in-one community, the three pieces being Gymtime Rhythm & Glues, York Avenue Preschool, and Summer Breeze Daycamp. It’s also reflected in their foundation, which has raised money for causes like the Food Allergy Initiative and the National Eating Disorder Association. And it’s reflected in their next big dream: to do what they love doing—creating centers for children’s activities and learning—for families in Harlem. Why slow down when you still have more to give?

Though we’re sitting
in Gymtime on the Upper East Side, you got your start in Brooklyn in the
late 1970s. What was that experience like?

Michael: We opened
Brooklyn Gymnastics Center in Bay Ridge in 1978. I had graduated from
Long Island University as a physical education teacher in the early
1970s, and Bonni was working in the garment industry. It was a challenge
because that area of Brooklyn was not a very progressive area at that
time. The attitude was, “Gee whiz, who would send their kids to
after-school activities?” The big sport in the area was soccer—and
forget about girls participating in any sport. But to my surprise, they
really embraced us. The school ended up being very successful in two
ways: many of the gymnasts who came out of that school during the 1980s
and 1990s went on to international and national competitions. Also, most
gymnastics centers in the early 1980s were run by gym coaches, who
would put in their days as teachers and then after school have gymnastic
centers as their second job or, really, their passion. I did something
very different. I said, “There is a whole block of time from 9 o’clock
to 3 o’clock when children in preschool and below have no physical
education outlets.” And that’s what we started. We had dads and moms of
all ethnic backgrounds, which was great. The facility was a real
multicultural teaching experience.

That seems pretty ahead of the curve. Most people
think of Mommy & Me classes as a relatively new idea.

Michael: We were
pioneers. We initiated a program called Tiny Tots Fitness for ages 6 to
18 months, and it became an incredible success. Once we knew that could
happen, we felt like there were some bigger challenges for us.

So that would be when
you decided to come to Manhattan?

Bonni: We decided to tilt the scale and
really focus on the young children, which is what we do today. We moved
to Manhattan as a young couple with two children ourselves, and we
opened up Columbus Preschool and Gym on the West Side in 1989. We sold
that about two years afterwards to open up Gymtime. One of the key
things we brought with us from Brooklyn is that parents with young
children were open to so much more than just teaching their kids
gymnastics. So now at Gymtime, very young kids—18 months and up—can have
a preschool-like experience with many different classes—gym, cooking,
music, etc.—under one umbrella, but the seeds of that were in Brooklyn.

Gymtime Rhythm
& Glues is also home to York Avenue Preschool. What made you decide
to open up a preschool, too?

Michael: We opened up our fi rst preschool in
Brooklyn, so we knew from experience what a great incentive it is to
have a preschool with a gym as its backyard.

York Avenue
Preschool is a not-for-profi t entity, which at the time that we opened
it was something new for us. One of our biggest challenges was to get
York Avenue Preschool to be among the top tier of preschools, and we
feel it’s just about there. We’re not particularly involved in the
dayto-day—we’re more involved with the big decision making—but we’re
very proud of it. The parents’ association
is a huge part of the makeup of the school, and that’s where you get
the community feeling both at York Avenue Preschool and at Gymtime. One
day you will walk in and York Avenue Preschool is sponsoring a book
sale—it brings in a different feeling to an activity center.

Let’s talk about your
new endeavor, the Gymtime Foundation. How did you decide to start
that—did something in particular inspire you?

Bonni: Growing up, I
learned a lot from my parents about giving back. As I got older I
thought, “I want to be a part of that.” But for a long time I was
involved with my own children, and we were working hard to make a life
for our family. But now my children are all grown up and I’ve become
this person in the business world, and I’ve come to understand what
giving back is. It’s my turn. If we can’t set a good example for our own
children, then what are we doing? It’s a wonderful feeling to write a
check out to a cause you believe in.

What was the first cause the Gymtime Foundation

Bonni: About three years ago, we began to renovate
Gymtime, and we ended up doing it right: environmentally safe
air-conditioning, green paint for the classrooms, green carpeting, green
cleaning products, etc.— and that led me to want to try to raise money
for research on environmental factors like how even cleaning products
might correlate with children and cancer. So, even before we were a
foundation—when it was still a thought in the back of my head—we held a
Family Day event, our Green Day, in which we raised about $12,000 for
the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at
Hackensack University Medical Center.

Michael: And what’s nice about this
foundation is that these aren’t big corporate donors. That $12,000
might not sound like much, but when you’re raising it with $25 per
family, that amounts to a lot of families. It really involves
the entire community. It’s an incredible feeling to see your entire
staff donate part of their time on a Saturday or Sunday, with parents
working alongside staff members and children working alongside parents

What other causes has the Foundation gone on to support?
year we raised money for the Food Allergy Initiative, which is striving
to develop a cure for life-threatening food allergies. Hopefully, they
are $16,000 closer, because that was our donation.

And this year you’re
raising money to support the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Why did
you choose this cause?

Bonni: Because of my daughter and our
experience with eating disorders. So this is a big deal for us
personally. She is recovering, and she is doing phenomenal. But I
thought, “You know what? If my daughter gives me a thumbs up, this is
what we’re supporting this year.” And she did. We were very lucky that
when my daughter was going through it, we had the resources to get her
through a six-week hospital stay, to drive an hour and a half round-trip
three times a week to get her to therapy. But eating disorders hit
everybody—they hit boys, they hit low-income families, they hit girls
now 6 and 7 years old. What do parents do if they don’t have the
resources? Where do they go for help? We are hoping to raise $50,000 for
NEDA. [See sidebar for more information.]

Wow. And you’re also starting up an entirely
new philanthropic venture this year. Is it true Gymtime is expanding to

This is our next challenge. We can easily reintroduce ourselves to
Lower Manhattan or to the Upper West Side. But we thought, Let’s do
something different. So we are teaming up with a very prominent lawyer
and investor named Bill Wachtel, whose father, Harry Wachtel, was a
lawyer for Martin Luther King and a founder of the Drum Major Institute,
a major think tank organization during the Civil Rights era. Together
with a group of investors, we will be opening a preschool and activity
center in West Harlem, somewhere between 120th and 129th Streets and
between Fifth and Lenox Avenues.

Our target opening date is 2011. The tuition will not
be the responsibility of the parents, but the responsibility of the
community. I mean the prominent athletes, actors and actresses,
musicians, politicians, and all the corporate people who made it very
big in Harlem. Those are the people we’re going to be asking for
donations for the children in Harlem to be able to attend a preschool
like York Avenue Preschool and a facility like Gymtime.

It sounds like you see
this effort as another way of giving back.

Michael: To me, it’s
especially exciting because I was born up in Harlem, on 108th Street
between First and Second Avenues, so I am coming full circle. I love the
foundation—I am not going to say it’s exclusively [Bonni’s], but she
has sort of kicked me out of it. For me, my biggest thrill in life is
building schools. It’s exciting to get my hands dirty again. I have
visions of what it’s going to look like. I know where the gym is, where
the activities are, and how we can make another improvement on the
interior. We are optimistic, but let me be realistic. We are going into a
recession—we are going into a part of the city that has been feeling
the recession for months. Are we going to have to change and adapt? Yes.
But we have investors who believe in it.

Let’s talk about the fact that you two are
married and work together every day. How do you do that?

Bonni: He has his
offi ce; I have my offi ce! We both have different responsibilities—this
way we don’t cross each other, and if I do cross him, he lets me know.
And I do that a lot. I have a big mouth and I have to know what’s going
on, and he’ll just give me the look and I’ll go, “Oops!” and just back
off. If we worked in the same offi ce or if we worked on the same
things, I don’t know if we’d be Bonni and Michael Branciforte!

What are your kids up to

My daughter is 23 and just graduated in May from the College of
Charleston in Charleston, SC, as an honors student in history. She found
a job working for a wealth management tech corporation where they pair
off companies and investors for both nonprofit and profi t
organizations. She’s doing really well, and she loves it. My son,
Julian, he’s the artist, the fi lm director. He’s 20 right now and at
the School of Visual Arts. It’s a passion that has been with him since
he was 13.

think about bringing your kids into the family business?

Bonni: Lindsay
thought of that when she got out of college and was like, “What am I
going to do with my life?” But we said, “Go out and fi gure it out!”

Michael: Our advice
is to go out and develop your own style, your own responsibility, your
own likes, and some day when you think you’re ready, we’ll see.

It doesn’t sound like
you’re ready to retire anytime soon, though.

Michael: It’s been a
nice ride, but it’s not over yet.

National Eating
Disorder Association

This year the Gymtime
Foundation is raising money for a cause close to the Brancifortes’
hearts—the National Eating Disorder Association
(NEDA). “I think there is a lot of identifying with the issue,” says
Gymtime Cofounder Bonni Branciforte.

“Everybody knows someone
who has been impacted by it.” The funds that the Foundation raises will
go toward tool kits to teach coaches and teachers in public and private
school settings how to identify and assist young athletes who may have
an eating disorder. There will be several events to help raise money for
the cause. The Foundation’s festival already took place in October and
raised $3,350.

Families are also invited to join the Foundation
in the national NEDA walkathon in late February (which the Branciforte’s
daughter Lindsay is also doing in Charleston, SC). Finally, there will
be a family carnival at Gymtime on May 3. “We want to raise $50,000, so
we’re hoping for a really good outcome!” says Bonni. For more
information and to get involved, call 212-861-7732.