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Dina Kimmel: Running a Franchise in a Global Pandemic

March 4, 2022 | In: Dream With Dina , News , Why We Rock

Creating a new business model for my owners and my own personal health hardships 

March 17th, 2020. The day that the world shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic. The day that set the world into a state of panic and uncertainty, and the day my entire franchise was shut down with no certainty of when we would be able to continue our essential services. With the news full of constant updates of infections and deaths in the world and new mandates for every state and county, I knew I could not let fear get the best of me regarding the “unknown.” But… What would happen to my franchise?  Not once did I think that my franchise wouldn’t make it. I was determined to keep calm and be the strong leader and example my family and owners needed me to be. 

Later that night, at 2:30 am, I sat down with myself and really thought about what I, as the CEO of a worldwide franchise, could do to help keep We Rock the Spectrum afloat. Then, it came to me. Knowing that healthcare providers would be needed more and more in hospitals and their families would need a helping hand, I decided to offer FREE respite care for them. This way, they would be able to drop their kids off in a safe, vigilantly sanitized, and FUN space while they continue to save lives. Immediately, I reached out to our marketing company and asked them to create a flyer and post it on all social media platforms. 

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Was I nervous? Was I scared? Of course, I was. We all were. But, as I said, not once did I think that my franchise would go under. All that mattered to me was my franchise, my owners, and being able to continue providing the unrivaled, sensory-safe, inclusive services we are known for. Through our nonprofit, My Brother Rocks the Spectrum, we were able to fund these visits for the next three months. 

As days and weeks passed, healthcare providers brought their children and dropped them off, and there we were. Sitting outside with tables, taking temperatures of each child and parent, and sanitizing the entire gym every second that we could. 

Instead of being terrified of what was next, I was hopeful. Hopeful for the future. Hopeful for what was next for my franchise. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt like the entire world hit the panic button. Almost all of the grocery stores were wiped clean, personal protective equipment (PPE) was nowhere to be found, and hospitals were overwhelmed with the alarming rate of hospitalizations. Because of this, I wanted to find more ways to help our community in any way that I could. While watching the news one night, I saw a video of a nurse showing how to make makeshift KN95 masks. I started a huge push to make hundreds of masks for local urgent cares. My corporate team and I began to make face masks out of coffee filters. 

We knew that by making these coffee filter masks, we were making a difference and doing what we could to help out our community. We donated the DIY masks to Encino Hospital, in hopes that they would be able to use them. We wanted to help them while they were helping us. 

On the franchise level, I, as well as my entire corporate team, continued to provide support for my owners. From calling owners daily, going live on Facebook every day in our private owners’ group, and posting a word of the day every day that would inspire owners to keep them going, we were able to keep morale up and encourage our franchisees to keep being there for their communities.

Continuing to push through, I thought about what else we could do to help our community. 3 months of free Drop Off care for healthcare workers had passed and I made it my top priority to read through every single state’s mandates to see where we could fit to be deemed essential. 

By this point, the world found itself in a surge of cases. With the pandemic becoming worse, kiddos were starting to feel trapped. From having to sit on zoom all day for school, being stuck at home all the time, not seeing friends, this pandemic was a lot of children’s worst nightmare. For families with children on the spectrum, the stay-at-home order was more difficult than you can ever imagine. Parents found themselves with children regressing – anger, physical outbursts, language delays, not eating, not sleeping, etc. 

My husband and I saw firsthand the effects it had on our own children and how they were coping with the global pandemic that seemed to have turned everyone’s world upside down. My son, Gabriel, who is diagnosed with ASD, cried for hours. With having to do everything on zoom, Gabriel was incredibly overwhelmed with all of the screen time. On the other hand, my daughter, Sophia, who has Crohn’s Disease, struggled with her anxiety absolutely skyrocketing through the roof. 

Knowing how this pandemic was affecting my own children and knowing how it could possibly affect others, I knew that our gyms had to reopen for their communities. Knowing the virus, how it would continue to spread throughout the communities, and what the rules and regulations are – I realized that our gyms worldwide would be the perfect facilities to rent out to one household at a time. Facilities that were able to, under their state mandates, offer Private Facility Rentals for families that were in need of a retreat from their lockdown. By putting in place strict sanitation policies for all of our owners, children and their families felt comfortable and safe playing at their local We Rock. 

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Fast forward a few more months, and it was time for our kiddos to go back to school. By this time, we already had our summer camp. Based on how our summer camp went, we saw that there was still a great need for parents to find a place where they could drop their kids off and be able to go to work. So we decided to launch our virtual learning program – a program where parents could drop off their kiddos with all of their schoolwork and where they were able to do their work directly from the gym. 

The virtual learning program was more successful than I could have ever imagined. We began by starting it at the Tarzana location and once we had the system down, we brought it to our other franchise owners. We have multiple owners in our franchise that are teachers who all thought this would be a phenomenal idea. Within a matter of weeks, a majority of our learning pods were full. 

Because of what we do and the community that we cater towards, we were deemed essential. Being deemed essential was something that we really needed. It meant that our doors could continue to be open and we could continue to help out those families who needed us. Our franchise was often talked about in the news and on TV as a feel-good story. Being able to service the community through the nonprofit and then reinventing ourselves through a new business model and through virtual learning, we had about 12 news pieces done in a matter of months.

When the time came for our annual Rockin’ Resource Fair to happen, the world was not in a state for us to be able to gather in-person safely. This event in the past has attracted a large crowd and it simply was just not safe enough yet. For many parents of kids with special needs, the pandemic was devastating. All necessary therapies were canceled, there were little to no resources for our kids, and it felt like all hope was lost. Grace Covino, our Project Manager who leads the event, sat down with me and told me “Let’s do it virtually!” So, on September 12, 2020, The Rockin’ Resource Fair went virtual! With over 50 special need vendors worldwide, the Rockin’ Resource Fair became that beacon of light and hope for our community that they so desperately needed.

Something that our franchise takes great pride in is our grand openings. Throughout 2020, we had 7 grand openings. Unfortunately,  for the health and safety of our team members, no one from the corporate team was able to physically attend any of them. Thankfully for us, and the rest of the world, Zoom saved the day. Thanks to Zoom, we trained our owners virtually and had our cameras open all day so that we could still be there to give them support on their big day.

During the 15 months of lockdown, we were able to bring on 9 new owners to take over gyms from owners who, unfortunately, were not able to make it through the pandemic. These owners, who had to resell and pass the baton to someone else, are my heroes. They were not able to remotely recoup what they put into their gyms, but that was truly not something that mattered to them. The owners that had to resell were always about the mission, and all they wanted was to ensure that the mission would continue to carry on. 

In December of 2020, I wanted We Rock the Spectrum to help sprinkle a little bit of magic in this not-so-magical holiday season, so our popular annual Sensitive Santa event lived on! Every year, we do this event in partnership with CARD and Autism Live. Though the host of Autism Live, Shannon Penrod, was not able to come to the event shet graciously donated a Santa Suit and hundreds of toys for us so that we could pull it off. The event was featured on FOX LA news – allowing us to provide a bit of light in the dark times that we were living through.

The day was a huge success as our little elves from the corporate office (Tyler Tanner, Grace Covino, and myself) delivered presents safely to families’ cars. Parents were so grateful for us. They were so grateful that their kids were able to meet Santa, receive presents, and more grateful that we found a way to provide some joy in this holiday season that was not like the rest. 

December flew by and so did the holiday season. As a family, we host an annual Hanukkah/Christmas celebration in our home every year with our family. Not knowing what to do, but knowing that we needed to connect with our family, we decided to have our dinner with just our immediate family. Everyone was tested for COVID and all results came back negative. It was so great being together for the first time in 8 months. 

New Year’s Eve came around, and my family and I were home as a family with my father. Celebrating and toasting that we made it through the year, healthy, strong, and full of a new appreciation and love for one another. 

Just 24 hrs later, I started coughing and not feeling well. I knew it was asthma, as there was a change of weather. Not for a second did I think that it would be COVID. I had not even been going to the grocery store. My only daily destinations were my office (which had the same 5 people working in it, all of which are regularly tested) and my home. 

By January 2nd, I could not breathe. Oximeters were brought out, numbers went down to the 80s. I called the doctor, and he immediately told me to go to the ER. I started to cry and told him that I didn’t want to expose my family or myself to COVID. He then responded and told me to wait, do another asthma treatment, and to give him a call if it got better. It did not. I drove to the ER, absolutely terrified and alone. I couldn’t even have my husband come with me, as I didn’t want to expose him and they wouldn’t have let him into the hospital anyways. Upon arriving, I was asked what my symptoms were. Upon hearing them, I was immediately taken to the COVID unit. I was terrified. I waited about an hour before the doctor came in and asked me how I could have contracted the virus. I said, what are you talking about – there is no possible way that I had it. He administered the test and treated me with prednisone. The doctor said, “We have no beds in the hospital. You can either stay here and wait or go home and be treated with the same treatment.” I chose to go home. Not knowing if this doctor was right about me being positive or not, I started isolating myself.

That morning, my daughter, Sophia, came down with the worst body aches ever, as did I, along with other symptoms. Loss of appetite and body aches that you could feel in your bones. A few hours later, the doctor called and said that I was positive for COVID. Of course, all that went through my mind was, how… they had to be wrong. Knowing the severity of this virus, my entire family was immediately tested – not one, not two, not three, but every member of my family had tested positive for COVID. Out of fear, I had my father get a COVID test – which also came back positive. All I could think to myself was “my poor father.” I had just lost my stepmom 6 weeks before this due to pulmonary hypertension, which is a type of high blood pressure that affects arteries in the lungs and the heart.

My doctor immediately took action knowing all my underlying health conditions – putting me on blood thinners, steroids, antibiotics, using a nebulizer, and other natural remedies. My days consisted of barely lifting my head off of the pillow – except to take my medications and being full of worry and constantly checking in on my family to make sure they were okay. Thankfully, everyone but myself recovered from the virus-like one would for the flu. Gabriel barely coughed and Sophia recovered in just under 5 days.

On day 9 of testing positive for the virus, I took a turn for the worse. I was told that if I was able to make it to day 10 without getting worse, I was out of the woods. Unfortunately, I kept getting worse. I called my doctor, who then began to call in-home nursing programs, in hopes that somebody would be able to come to my home and give me antibodies. 

Despite being sicker than a dog, I was most worried about my father and my husband (who was on day 2 himself with the virus). I waited for my father for six hours while he received the antibodies. He recovered within days. All I can say is thank God for modern medicine, my faith in a higher power, and my family. 

Anyone who received antibodies for COVID-19 knows that it is like a 24-hour war inside your body. Either you win, or the virus wins. Thankfully, my father and I won the war. I continued to work for 3 weeks on zoom. My entire team called me crazy for still working. I had them get tested regularly and thankfully no one ever tested positive. 

Having a lot of health conditions, though difficult and not deadly, I always had a positive outlook on life. But, when I would turn on the news, it was hard to stay optimistic. Everything was heartbreaking to watch. So, the TV was always off. 

As days passed, I became stronger. No one knew that I had COVID except for my team and my family. 3 weeks into my recovery, I made the decision to tell the ownership where I had been. I was terrified because I had spent the last 9 months telling them to keep doing it right so that there were no COVID cases in their gyms or their families, but here I was recovering from the virus. 

Los Angeles became the epicenter for the virus. People were dying in the thousands daily until, thankfully, the vaccine was officially released. As more and more people got the vaccine, we were slowly getting our lives back. 

As we finally approach the “endemic,” we are thrilled to say that our franchise is now fully open, and we are selling locations left and right. WRTS Worldwide recently hit the incredible milestone of 100 locations across the globe! As more and more inquiries roll in every day to bring the We Rock mission to special needs communities in every corner of the world, we expect this number to grow rapidly in 2022.   

I am so proud of everything that my Corporate team and Franchisees have accomplished over the past few years despite the many obstacles and uncertainties that stood in our way. My Corporate team has spent countless hours supporting our owners to ensure that health, safety, and compliance remain a top priority, while also equipping them with courage and tools to best serve their customers. Our franchise owners have shown extreme perseverance through their dedication to their communities during these difficult times and continue to provide inclusive, sensory-safe, fun environments for children of ALL abilities. I have no doubt that every member of the We Rock family has and will continue to be a beacon of light through any circumstance that comes their way!!! 

Thank you to our We Rock communities worldwide for your constant love and support through this historically trivial time. I promise you that we are ready to ROCK to the fullest this year and beyond! If you are interested in joining our team, we would be thrilled to have you aboard! Learn more and apply today.