Professor's passion fuels adapted aquatics program

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Graduate student Nikki Smith, and Riley Johnson of Waite Park

Graduate student Nikki Smith, Andover, and Riley Johnson of Waite Park.

Graduate student Nikki Smith, and Riley Johnson of Waite Park Nikki Smith 

It’s a passion that has led to tears of joy for many parents and guardians and great satisfaction over the years for Professor Ruth Nearing. That passion is the St. Cloud State adapted aquatics program that Nearing has directed since she arrived on campus in 1970.

It started in the Veterans Administration Hospital pool as a Red Cross program and evolved into annual swimming lessons at Halenbeck Pool as part of the Developmental Adapted Physical Education (DAPE) licensure program in the SCSU Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Sports Science.

Nearing has been the driving force in a program that has assisted hundreds, even thousands (once you consider the ripple effect of those licensed in DAPE) of young people with disabilities. Last summer, more than 90 children signed up for swimming lessons but there was room for only 45. The reason: the pool can safely hold a limited number of participants and there have to be enough St. Cloud State students and volunteers to assist the swimmers. The program teaches swimming to children 3-14 years of age.

In order to offer the swimming classes, Nearing has a group of volunteers, many who come back year after year, and St. Cloud State students who are enrolled in the adapted aquatics course to help her each summer. The children come for eight sessions that run 45 minutes each. They are assigned instructors according to their swimming ability and, in some cases, their disabilities. Some can be taught in small groups and some need one-on-one or two-on-one assistance.
The rewards for offering swimming classes to children with disabilities are many, according to Nearing. Besides learning to swim and how to be safe in, on and about the water, the children have opportunities to be in social situations ranging from saying hello to someone and making eye contact to waiting in line, listening and taking turns. "There is a value in just being immersed in water; it is a therapeutic modality that has been used for centuries as it acts as a natural massage," said Nearing. In addition, children who have problems moving on land due to a lack of strength, lack of limbs or limbs that are shaped differently may find it is easier to move in the water with very little effort. That is especially helpful for young people with cerebral palsy.

Children with disabilities, like other children, may push themselves and some are very competitive. Nearing tells the story of one young boy, Riley Johnson of Waite Park, who was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that occurs at birth and causes multiple joint contractures or immovable joints. When he came to adapted aquatics last summer, the young man’s goal for the eight swimming sessions was to be able to swim one length of the pool by himself despite having limited leg movement. He reached his goal the first day. "Later, we put fins on him and every day he would swim a few more laps," said Nearing. By the time the swimming sessions ended, he could swim ten lengths without stopping and turn at the ends of the pool without any help. "Now, there’s a young man whose self-determination allowed him to be successful," said Nearing. "How he swam made no difference – the bottom line was that he was successful and that’s what it’s all about."

St. Cloud State students who take the adapted aquatics course as part of their DAPE teaching licensure also benefit by teaching the children. "Unless you apply the book knowledge learned, unless you get your hands wet, so to speak, and work with children with disabilities, connections are not made," Nearing said. "Prior to taking the course, many of the college students have never interacted with a person with a disability; their first instinct is fear and they tend to be timid. Finally, they realize that these young people are just like those of us without significant disabilities, with the same needs and desires. That’s the point at which they relax and begin to treat the young swimmers like they would anyone else."

According to Nearing there probably isn’t another program in the Upper Midwest like this one. The adapted aquatics summer program is a win-win situation for the children with disabilities, for SCSU students, for the University and for the St. Cloud community. St. Cloud State and the community also benefit because it’s an opportunity to see, respect and accept children with disabilities.

Nearing said she finds a great deal of joy in working with children with disabilities. "This is absolutely my favorite thing to do," she said. "You do the smallest thing for them and they and their parents and guardians are so thankful. I guess it has to do with the bodies in which we live versus the personality and spirit of the person," said Nearing. "There is a personality in each child, regardless of ability, that a lot of people don’t see. I get to see those little personalities, and that is the fun part of it. I couldn’t have asked for a better job!"

- Anne Abicht

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