Eight from Buchanan County are participating in the GFWC Grundy Woman’s Club Au-some Summer Swim Project.
Funded by the Buchanan County Autism Awareness 5K Walk/Run, which is hosted annually by the women’s club in April, the project is currently providing free adaptive swim lessons for individuals with autism through a partnership with the local YMCA.
Working with the public school system to identify children most in need, the club also reached out to parents directly through the Grundy Autism Support Group.
Once selected, the children’s parents were able to coordinate private lessons with the Y directly. Not only could they plan around their own schedules, but also around the temperament of the child.
As autism is a neurological disorder that can result in sensory overload and difficulty coping with changes in routine, this flexibility allowed parents to plan for the best time of day for the child and reschedule when necessary.
Since the project began earlier this summer, the response has been overwhelming.
“I knew, as the parent of a child with autism, how much these lessons would mean to our family,” says JoBeth Wampler, GFWC Grundy Woman’s Club First Vice President. “So when we started planning this year’s 5K, we realized making a big impact in the autism community might be as simple as a partnership with the Y. They’ve been a great asset to this project.”
Private lessons have been offered at the YMCA for some time; however, getting the word out can be difficult. In many cases, too, parents of children with special needs can’t be certain how their child will be received.
Cost is another obstacle. Private lessons can be expensive.
Rochelle Deel, who paid for swim lessons for her son Westen last year, knows this firsthand.
“When I found out they would be offered free this summer, I was really excited about it,” she says. “Swim lessons can be expensive and finding someone you trust to teach your child can be a challenge. It takes a lot of patience and understanding to try and teach a child with autism to swim.”
Accessibility can also be an issue for those who don’t have a pool or the ability to teach their child themselves.
And that’s what the GFWC Grundy Woman’s Club set out to remedy.
Yet, while the autism community celebrated, not everyone in the county understood the need.
“When our son was diagnosed, I remember people making comments about how their grandson or nephew or a kid down the street, who also didn’t talk by two years old, ‘turned out just fine.’ At the time, I remember thinking, they just didn’t get it,” says Wampler. “When I first began talking to people about the need for this program, I heard similar responses – ‘That’s any kid. Any kid is at risk of drowning.’ But they just don’t get it. When our daughter was growing up, we were able to teach her a healthy respect of water. But our son doesn’t see the danger of a fast-moving current or how quickly it can sweep you away or pull you under. He just knows he loves the water and will inch as close as he can to the edge of the river.”
Mary Beth Burkes, whose son Stephen took part in the Au-some Summer Swim Project, has dealt with the same.
“Stephen has no fear of water whatsoever,” she says. “He has had some experience with swimming, but because of his lack of any fear, I was so thankful to Brandee Owens and Ashley [Roberts] for working with him on formal lessons.”
Owens serves as Executive Director of the Y; while, Roberts, who has a degree in Special Education and a background in lifeguarding, joined the Y this summer specifically to assist with the Au-some Summer Swim Project. Their knowledge of autism was a great asset to the program’s success and to kids like Westen Deel.
“Westen loves the water and he struggles to comprehend the danger that is associated with it,” Deel says. “I see it as a need for him to learn to swim for his own protection. It could be a very dangerous situation if he wandered into an area with a pool or water and he could not swim. Most people do not realize the worries and concerns a parent goes through trying to stay a step ahead of a ‘fearless’ child. You never know what the child may be thinking and sometimes, he or she cannot tell you. Therefore, it is struggling to pull yourself into their world and prevent danger when he or she doesn’t comprehend it that way. That is a personal fear I have and deal with daily.”
Helping others to better understand autism is the second prong of the Au-some Summer Swim Project’s mission.
“As cliche as it is to suggest you walk in someone’s shoes, I guess it’s more about making yourself aware,” says Wampler. “If you don’t get it, if you don’t understand, ask questions. Talk to people who’ve been there.”
For Wampler, it’s a personal mission and one for which she found help through the GFWC Grundy Woman’s Club.
After joining the local organization in September 2014, she was approached by former member and optician Eilene Eugenio-Kinzer about hosting what would become the club’s inaugural Buchanan County Autism Awareness 5K Walk/Run. While Kinzer relocated to Pikeville, Ky., a short time after that first event in April 2015, her impact is still felt throughout the autism community today.
“When Eilene approached me, I realized the women’s club really wasn’t just telling me what I wanted to hear,” she says. “When they said they’d help me do something, they really meant it. For anyone who has a personal mission like mine – maybe someone who’s benefitted from St. Jude’s and wants to give back, or someone who wants to make an impact in the community for the members of another special need – join us. Tell us what your passion is and we’ll help you, too.”
For those who have participated in the Au-some Summer Swim, the effect has been substantial.
Parents and grandparents have been grateful for the support, which is believed to be the first of its kind for the autism community in Buchanan County. Other types of services have been provided through the public school system or through community support groups, like Cumberland Mountain Community Services, once the child ages out of the former at age 22.
For Geraldine Woods, the lessons were a big deal for her grandson Jacob and his family.
She heard about the Au-some Summer Swim Project through the Grundy Autism Support Group’s Facebook page, through which the women’s club reached out to parents and caregivers.
As soon as she signed him up, Woods says Jacob was very excited.
Of course, that excitement turned to nerves the minute he arrived for his first lesson, but Woods says it only took minutes for him to relax and trust his instructor.
“[We’re] very grateful to the Grundy Woman’s Club for paying for Jacob and his brother James,” she says. “All kids with autism needs swimming lessons. You hear pretty often of kids wandering off and drowning.”
“It was a big thing to us.”
Lynn Lowe, who’s son Brice participated in the swim project, agrees.
“This has been the first autism project, other than the ones offered when he was in school, that Brice has been able to participate in,” she says. “I hope that this will be offered every summer and would recommend it to all the children who qualify. I am so thankful this was made available to the special needs community. I hope to see more activities like this in the future.”
For 22-year-old Brice, who is no longer able to go to a traditional public school each day, the lessons weren’t just about learning to swim – they were about much-needed socialization, too.
While scientists once believe individuals with autism prefer being alone, many have spoken out against this assumption – revealing the fact that, while meeting new people or navigating everyday social situations can be stressful, those with autism enjoy being in the company of friends and family just like any other person.
Autistic traits, like avoiding eye contact or playing alone, do not equate to a lack of interest in others.
“He misses the socialization or watching others socialize,” says Lowe. “He enjoyed watching the other people taking classes in the pool and he relaxed and enjoyed the time that he spent with Ashley [his instructor]. I was pleased with his progress in the pool but more pleased that he was given the opportunity to enjoy a ‘regular’ activity.”
And his instructor was a perfect fit for him.
“Brice truly enjoyed going swimming with Ashley,” says Lowe. “She was so considerate of his needs and his attention span. He looked forward to going and that gave him a highlight for his day. I wish they could go all year!”
“Our experience was everything we could have hoped for,” Lowe adds.
The Y even understood how vital trust is for a person with autism. Burkes says she was more than impressed with their awareness of those on the spectrum.
“I honestly can’t think of one thing I would change about how the project went,” she says. “After filling out the initial paperwork at the Y, it was only a couple days wait and we had our first swim lesson. The Y staff was amazing. Brandee Owens, understanding the importance of consistency with children on the spectrum, tried her best to use the same instructor with Stephen for each lesson. That was a huge blessing!”
According to Wampler, the women’s club raised over $1,100 with its Buchanan County Autism Awareness 5K Walk/Run. It was with these funds, the club was able to offer lessons to eight individuals with autism in the community. Any remaining funds will be held over for next year, when she hopes the club will again sponsor the Au-some Summer Swim Project.
“I am truly thankful for the people in our community who contributed to providing free swim lessons to our children,” Deel says. “I hope to see more events being held to raise autism awareness that directly impact our community.”
“I cannot thank the Grundy Woman’s Club enough for providing the funds for these lessons and would like to thank them for being a small part of Stephen’s life that he will carry with him forever… He learned new skills that he will continue to use the rest of his life.”
For more information about the GFWC Grundy Woman’s Club and the Au-some Summer Swim Project, visit www.GFWCGrundyWomansClub.com or www.facebook.com/GFWCGrundyWomansClub. Wampler also invites other members of the autism community or those interested in joining the club to contact her directly at 540-250-6294 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to share their ideas or to learn more about how they can participate next year.