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Your Dollars @ Work: Helping students with special needs learn to swim

Autism Speaks is excited to announce the newest round of recipients of the Swimming and Water Safety Scholarship Fund. This fund, announced in early 2014, selects eligible organizations and programs to identify qualified financially disadvantaged individuals with autism and offer scholarship funds for swimming and water safety lessons. Funding is awarded quarterly. Learn more here!

A total of 6 new organizations were awarded funding of up to $2,000 each. The list is organized alphabetically by state below:

Social Outdoor Fitness TPA SwimSCAAPE 
Los Angeles, CA

AquAbility, Inc. 
Boise, ID

Applied Behavior Center for Autism 
Indianapolis, IN

YMCA of Greater Kansas City 
Kansas City, MO

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center 
Bridgewater, NJ

Central Bucks Family YMCA 
Doyleston, PA

In addition to the recipients, we wanted to to share this guest post which was written by Jake Harner, a college student who completed his final paper on the team at MarTar Swim School in Mt. Airey Maryland. MarTar Swim School is a 2014 recipient of the Autism Speaks Swimming and Water Safety Scholarship Fund. Learn more about this safety initiative here.

I had the pleasure of observing and interviewing members of the MarTar Swim School team. The owner, Tara Girch, has been teaching people, with and without disabilities, to swim practically her whole life. When I observed I was able to watch Tara, her husband Marty, and longtime employee and friend, Steve, teach a number of students throughout most of the day; on the second day Steve was the only instructor.

The first day of observation was very interesting, as I got to see how each of them, Tara, Marty and Steve, approached the lesson and how they interacted with a few different clients. Their motto is that swimming is a life skill, and so it is taught as such. I was a little surprised that the water was not being used as a therapeutic force as it would be in actual therapy sessions. The purpose of these lessons are to provide their students with the ability to swim safely and for their survival if a situation like that were to come up.

Every parent I talked to mentioned how appreciative they were of the MarTar staff. Each parent I talked to mentioned how they had enrolled their children in some therapy program, either a school-based therapeutic group or other therapeutic activities outside of school. In some cases they had their children involved in recreational sports leagues.

One mother told me that she had her son, who was on the autism spectrum, playing soccer in a recreational league with other kids his age, which was not restricted to just kids with disabilities or impairments like his. At a certain point, he had “aged out” and was ineligible to play in that league. This was standard practice for all kids, but it was unfortunate that this child’s routine had been broken and if his parents wanted him to continue playing soccer that they would have to enroll him and a new league, which eventually would be more focused on competition than on the children’s level of satisfaction and fun. This mother said that she was so relieved to find the MarTar swim school and even more relieved to find out that she would not have to deal with her child aging out again.

A few parents told me that they have experienced situations where their children might have died if it was not for the exceptional education they had received from the MarTar staff. One of the students, whose lesson I caught the end of, was described as being nonverbal when he first began his swim lessons with the MarTar staff. He began with MarTar about ten years ago, and since then, he has made a large amount of progress. After a few weeks with the staff he became much more social. On top of his social improvements, he has made quite a bit of progress physically. At his current level he actually participates in competitive swimming.

As if the experience wasn’t amazing enough, Tara was able to get me a little bit of face time with a board member for a prominent autism advocacy organization. This woman was an inspiration and was full of insight not only into how autism effects those diagnosed with it, but also how it effects the lives of the parents, siblings, and friends of someone suffering from Autism.

Overall I had a wonderful experience observing and interacting with the MarTar staff. They were all extremely friendly and more than willing to help me and educate me on the process. Watching them work with their students I could see the differences between each of their styles, but I could also see how much each one of their students trusted them, even under the stress of pushing themselves to learn new techniques and reach their goal of learning to swim. Truly one of the best experiences I have ever had.

Your Dollars @ Work is a blog series highlighting the important work of past recipients of Autism Speaks grants to give you a glimpse into how your donations are changing lives of so many in the autism community! Check out previous entries here

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.