Saturday, February 8, 2014

Swim With A Special Child

The Connell Pool features a ramped entry, pool lift,
wheeled pool chair and dolphin mural.
An adaptive swimming program was started at the Connell Pool in Weymouth over forty years ago and it is still going strong today. Intrigued by this model of longevity and sustainability, I visited the program in November at the only indoor pool operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The program, known as Swim With A Special Child, was the inspiration of a few moms back in the 1970s. Little did they know how long it would last!

The program takes place from October to May in conjunction with the pool's schedule of operation. It is offers a great opportunity to prepare for the outdoor swimming season! Read on for a description of the program and how to sign up!

Lifeguards at the Connell Pool practice rescues.
When I arrived mid-way through the three hour Tuesday morning program, I found the pool full of swimmers. Each swimmer with a disability is matched up to a volunteer buddy who swims near the student, providing companionship, instruction and support as needed. I noticed some independent swimmers wearing belts so their buddy could easily help them. Others floated using noodles and practiced putting their faces in the water.
The pool is divided into four quadrants, making it easy to stay focused in the shallow or deep end as skill level permits. Each side of the pool has an instructor who oversees the area. On the pool deck, a small group of women track the participants, who arrive by bus from local schools and service organizations for 45 minute swim sessions. These women are very dedicated - I met one of the original initiators of the program and many long-term volunteers (some boasting 30 years!), all of whom seem to be there with regularity if not each week. The program is low profile, boasting no website, and attendance is easily filled by the participating organizations. Once a year or so, an ad is placed in local papers advertising for new volunteers. There is no fee to participate as a student or volunteer buddy.

No special skills are required to swim with participants, many of whom return each week or alternate every other week. One of the secrets of this successful volunteer run program is that a babysitter is provided, allowing moms with young kids to help out. The kids also get swim lessons if desired, otherwise they enjoy activities in the lobby. 
As for the swimmers, they were not just kids, but adults as well. Many have developmental delays or autism. About 10% have physical disabilities. The advantage of such a regular long term program is that kids can mature into adults and still attend. For some, it takes a long time to get used to the pool environment or work their way into the water. All the time that someone needs to learn to swim is perfectly okay, even if it takes weeks or months or even years. Some of the students use their acquired swimming skills in other situations - at school pools or summer waterfronts - which helps them maintain their activity level and retain what they have learned throughout the year.
The first two sessions of the day are completely full, but the third one, from 11:15 to noon, has space available for newcomers.  Anyone interested in volunteering or getting swim lessons should call Roberta Mitsch at 781-331-2877.
The Connell Pool is located at 220 Broad Street in Weymouth and features both a pool lift and a long ramp for access to the water. The facility also features an ice skating rink - with an ice sled on site for public use.

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