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Swim Lessons

Written by Julie Kolson '11
6/10/2009

First-year occupational therapy major Michael Moyer  works -- and plays -- with his swim buddy. Photo: Allison Usavage '12

My intimate look at therapeutic recreation: Through the years, Ithaca College has developed a strong and meaningful relationship with students and teachers of the Franziska Racker Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1948 that serves children, adolescents, and adults with special needs.

Once a week a group of about 20 young children from the center are bused to IC to work with students in Ithaca’s therapeutic recreation major.

The popular course Understanding Disabilities pairs IC students with a disabled child in a therapeutic swim program. The disabilities range from cognitive disability, to mental illness, physical disability, and sensory impairment.

For 50 minutes, students work one-on-one with a swim buddy in the indoor pool, gaining an incredible amount of experience in working with a disabled child in an intimate atmosphere. As the weeks progress, each student develops a crucial sense of rapport and comfort with their swim buddy.

Clinical health studies major Naomi Mark '11 and her swim buddy make a splash in the pool. Photo: Allison Usavage '12

Naomi Mark '10 and her swim buddy make a splash in the pool.


My swim buddy was an energetic yet timid, five-year-old girl named Lexie. Her blonde hair and adorable smile quickly won me over. Lexie suffers from a severe case of ADHD, as well as instability on her feet, and other disorders. My objectives were to keep her entertained and to help her feel secure while in my arms.

Lexie was enthusiastic about getting into the pool, but once she realized that she was separated from her teachers she frequently displayed a look of panic. Our sessions centered on cultivating Lexie’s comfort level with being in the pool and loosening the dependency on her teachers.

Max Duell '12, an outdoor adventure leadership major, poses with his swim buddy. Photo: Allison Usavage '12

Max Duell '12 poses with his swim buddy.

My most frequently used teaching tools were Lexie’s heroes, Big Bird and Dora the Explorer. When in the pool, it was those two TV characters that she looked to for comfort and a sense of security.

Each week there would be a variety of blow-up toys with popular cartoon pictures decorating each float. I would almost always point to the toy displaying Dora the Explorer’s face on it, floating in the deep end. Lexie would then abruptly relax and loosen her grip around my neck.

When the semester began we were told that the primary goal was to get each child to feel content in the pool, but it was okay if the child never even set foot in the water. Keeping that in mind, I was both proud and surprised when during our first swim session, shy Lexie expressed an immediate interest in going in.

However, the next week and for several weeks after that, Lexie was very resistant to getting into the pool for more than a few minutes. As the weeks progressed there was improvement in her communication and overall trust.

We worked on this throughout the semester, and even though we rarely spent a full session in the water, I was satisfied because I saw her confidence increase with each class.

Other students in the course had equally fulfilling experiences.

“Working with the students at the Racker Center was the most enriching experience I’ve had thus far at Ithaca College,” says fellow classmate Kate Zaleski ’11.

“Although the swim program was designed specifically to benefit children with disabilities, I walked away from the program learning just as much from these kids as they learned from me.”

I still think of my experience with Lexie fondly and smile. When I first came to Ithaca College, I knew that I wanted to work with kids, but after taking this hands-on course my career goals have been solidified.

My aim is to work with young children with a variety of disabilities or illnesses in a hospital setting. That passion parallels my current therapeutic recreation major, which focuses on working one-on-one with people of all ages in a variety of settings.

Having taken the Understanding Disabilities course, I now have more confidence as I approach graduation. I’m still amazed at how spending just 50 minutes a week for one semester with a five-year-old girl could leave me with such helpful knowledge and lasting memories.



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