Special-needs students get in the swim of things with helping hand from forward-thinking recreation therapist
Fifteen-year-old Chad VandenHouten stood a little too long at the end of the diving board at the Grafton Family Aquatic Center. Chad, who has Down syndrome, had too much time to think about the jump.
“Come on, bud, you can do it,” swimming instructor Arin Saunders said from the water, waiting for him. “You did it last year. I know you can do it, dude.”
“I’m ready to rock ’n’ roll, baby,” Chad said, but he just stood there.
He counted “5-4-3-2-1-blastoff” several times, but there was no blastoff.
“Do you want me to come on the board with you?” Saunders asked.
Chad said, “Yes,” sounding relieved. Saunders got on the board and stood behind him. She steadied his arms in encouragement as he inched toward the edge.
Chad sort of jumped and slipped off the board, landing with a splash near a flotation device held by lifeguard Jason Karrels, who grabbed the boy and held him above water while he caught his breath.
“Awesome!” Saunders said.
There were congratulations and high fives all around for the grinning young man, who a year ago wouldn’t go near the diving board and didn’t like putting his face in water.
Chad liked the picture photographer Sam Arendt got of his jump and laughed when he saw the video his mother took with her cell phone. She will send it to his sister Erica, who is living in Missouri and misses her little brother as much he misses her.
Earlier in his swim lesson, Chad did the crawl correctly, swimming several meters with his face in the water and taking breaths. That was the longest he swam, which also garnered lots of praise.
Saunders, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who is majoring in therapeutic recreation, developed the swimming program for children with special needs last year. She had four students, including Chad. This year, there were two students in the first session, but Saunders hopes more will participate in the second session.
“We never had anything for people with special needs, and I wanted them to feel a part of the community. I wanted them to be here at the same time as other kids,” said Saunders, a lifeguard who also teaches regular swim lessons for 6 to 8-year-olds.
“First, I talk with the parents to see what they want their child to accomplish. I do as much of the regular lesson as possible, then adapt it as needed.
“I discovered Chad needs a flotation belt for back stuff otherwise he sinks, but he doesn’t need it for front strokes. As soon as I put this (the belt) on him, he felt good and took off.
“My other student has a weird kick and we couldn’t change it, so we moved his arms in a little to compensate.
“I wish I could work with them year-round because they would improve so fast, rather than starting over every summer. They’re fun to work with.”
Chad’s mother Chris said her son has been taking adaptive swimming lessons for several years, but the focus was mostly on how to use flotation devices.
“He learned more in four weeks last summer than in all of his other lessons combined,” VandenHouten said.
“It’s important to us that he learn to swim. He loves the water and has no fear of it. He doesn’t realize there is a safety issue and there is danger in water.
“He’s learning the correct techniques of swimming, which is what I wanted him to do.”
Chad likes going to swimming lessons and loves “Miss Arin,” she said.
“My personal opinion is Arin is so successful because she isn’t afraid to push him,” VandenHouten said.
“She won’t take no for an answer. She pushes him to do his best. Even when he doesn’t want to listen, she makes him listen.”
Saunders said she treats special-needs students no differently than other students and enjoys working with them.
“Chad listens very well. Even if he doesn’t want to do something, he will do it,” she said. “I’ll use something he likes to do, like going down the water slide, to get him to do something he doesn’t want to do, like the diving board.
“I love swimming, and I love teaching children to swim.”
Saunders was a communications major until she learned UW-La Crosse offers a therapeutic recreation major, which she said is a perfect fit for her.
Saunders has been friends with students with special needs since she was in third grade at Grafton Elementary School. When she was in fifth grade, she was president of the Friendship Club, a social group for students of all abilities, and helped plan activities and events. The district’s special-education program is at the elementary and high school complex.
“I would never have been as involved with them if they weren’t a part of my elementary school,” Saunders said. “I’ve always been around students with special needs and treat them like anyone else.”
Her best friend has a brother with Down syndrome. Because of him, Saunders was involved with Special Olympics for several years.
Working with special-needs students is fun and rewarding, she said.
“They bring light to my life,” she said. “I get lots of hugs. I’m passionate about making them a part of the community and giving them the same opportunities as other people.
“I only wish we could get more kids with special needs out here.”
Image information: Chad VandenHouten jumped off the diving board at the Grafton pool with the help of swimming instructor Arin Saunders and lifeguard Jason Karrels. Photo by Sam Arendt