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All kids need to be safe in the water

Cody Schlecht, 9, left, gets swimming pointers Friday from lifeguard Josh Oestreich during a session of adaptive swimming lessons at the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 3
Lifeguard Joel Hedlof, left, coaxes Michael Shimek, 9, to make the leap the from the diving board during a session of adaptive swimming lessons at the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center in Willmar. Michael has made the leap several times during the sessions. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 3
Lifeguard Jennifer Ridler, left, spends time splashing and playing Friday with Emma Friesen, 5, during a lesson. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)3 / 3

WILLMAR -- Standing on the edge of a diving board, cautiously glancing down into the deep unknown of a swimming pool, can be a scary experience for any child -- and maybe even some adults.

But Michael Shimek, 9, isn't scared of the diving board. At least not any more.

On Wednesday, during one of his swimming lessons at the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center, Michael jumped off the diving board for the first time, a grin on his face and an excited "I didn't think he'd do it!" from his mother, Julie.

Michael, who was diagnosed with autism at 2½ years old, is one of 12 children who are participating in a three-week swimming session for children with disabilities, jointly hosted by the Willmar Community Education and Recreation and Arc Kandiyohi County.

The children, ages 5 to 12, have a range of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, paralysis, non-verbal, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, a rare chromosomal disorder.

This is the first year Community Education and Arc have held these swimming lessons, and the response from everyone involved has been positive, according to Mary Rhude, executive director of Arc.

"This was something that was needed in the community," Rhude said. "It's hard for some of these children to participate in regular lessons."

Because it would be impossible for instructors to teach one class that addresses everyone's limitations, each child works one-on-one with a lifeguard who is also a certified water safety instructor. Over the last two weeks, the children have bonded with their teachers and learned about water safety and rules.

For Julie Shimek, who has written two books on autism, this class was an opportunity to teach Michael to be safe in the pool. Many autistic children have a fascination with water and no fear when it comes to the dangers of swimming. According to the National Autism Association, drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children with autism.

"That's why this opportunity is a lifesaver for these kids," said Shimek, of New London. She and her family live on the water and have considered selling their house for that reason. They also took down their 6,000-gallon pool three years ago as a preventative measure.

"It was just hanging over our heads," she said. "But we'd love to put (the pool) back up -- and we probably will do that after this summer."

Tammi Boedigheimer, of Willmar, has two children with autism: Joshua, 12, and Jessica, 11. She said she's tried to put both children in swimming lessons before, but with little results.

"We've had a problem for years with swimming lessons," Boedigheimer said. "They were sort of a waste of time for them."

But these lessons have been different, she said. Jessica, who has always loved the water, has learned to follow directions better, and she's started to float and kick. Even Joshua, who wouldn't get in the water at all the first week, has made progress and warmed up to his instructor, Boedigheimer said.

"This is just an all-around great idea," she said. "There just isn't this opportunity for them anywhere else."

Head lifeguard Jennifer Ridler, 20, of Willmar, came up with the idea to hold these swimming lessons after working at the pool at St. Cloud State University, where she attends college. She's been teaching swimming lessons for five years and said there are significant differences when teaching children with disabilities.

"We work on what needs to be worked on for them," she said. "If something doesn't work, we find a different way to go about it."

All the lifeguards received training at the beginning of July on working and communicating with children who have disabilities, Rhude said.

The environment at these classes is calm and quiet. The instructors, 13 in all, have worked to establish a regular routine with the children. Many teach by using visuals. None of these necessities for children with disabilities would be guaranteed in a regular swimming lesson class, said LeAnne Freeman, recreation supervisor for Willmar Community Education and Recreation.

"We're taking it a bit slower so that the parents and the children feel comfortable," she said.

"At regular lessons, instructors might not stay back for that one kid. Here, they can really work with them one-on-one."

Next summer, Community Education and Arc plan to hold at least four swimming sessions for children with disabilities, according to Freeman.

"There is a need for this community to have these lessons," she said. "We're the land of 10,000 lakes, and we want to make sure all kids are safe in the water -- whether they have a disability or not."

Kari Goldschmidt, administrative assistant for Arc, agrees that these lessons are a priority for the community.

"It's so important for these kids to feel comfortable and safe in the water," Goldschmidt said. "I think it comes down to the fact that this opportunity isn't available anywhere else."

For Julie Shimek and her son, Michael -- who has now conquered his fear of the diving board not once, but several times -- these swimming lessons will give their family some much needed peace of mind.

"To put a child in the water who doesn't know how to swim -- that's fear at its height," Shimek said. "This has definitely made a difference. These lessons have done a wonderful thing for the children and their families."

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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