Swim program for developmentally disabled kids thrives at Rec Center

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As many as 17 young students have been splashing around the East Hampton RECenter on Wednesday afternoons and evenings, trading backpacks for bathing suits and putting off their homework for an hour and a half to relax in the pool.

The Adaptive Aquatics class, led by MegAnn Preiss, is for children of all ages who have a physical, mental or emotional disability, or for children who simply have a fear of the water or extreme shyness, to learn water safety, have fun and learn to swim better, in that order.

The students swim in the smaller pool with an instructor, learning the basics of swimming with a kickboard, noodle or other swimming tool while others use a kickboard to swim laps in the lap pool. There are always giggles and smiles as some students walk and others run across the tile toward the next pool or station to enjoy their aquatic activities.

Twelve-year-old Ashley Avallone spent her first swimming lesson on a recent Wednesday afternoon in the smaller pool. New students gain their bearings in the smaller pool before they begin lap work. Kicking her feet across the pool as instructor Patty Tuths pulled her along, Ashley was steadily keeping afloat and making her way across the pool in her lime green bathing suit with a watermelon on the front.

After Ms. Tuths worked with Ashley for a little while and was confident that she had learned something, she moved on to the next child and Ashley splashed around on her own. A little while later, Ashley was swimming across the pool, encountered Ms. Tuths and splashed her as she kicked her feet in the water. Ashley was practicing what she just had learned. Ms. Tuths returned the favor with a playful splash. A friendship had been formed.

Betsy Avallone, Ashley’s mother, said she liked the idea of the swim class, though the family has a pool in the backyard.

“It’s good for her to have something to do after school,” Ms. Avallone said. She added that this class bolsters self-esteem.

The class holds a different meaning for each of its students. For Dylan Avery, almost eight, who loves to take long baths and had to be coaxed out of the bay one Thanksgiving while the family was walking on the beach, this is another opportunity to do what he loves—to be in the water.

“Learning to swim is great, but it’s more about safety,” Ms. Preiss explained. For the children who have some sort of disability, she stresses the rules of swimming. Ms. Preiss, who has been teaching the class since 2004, knows what each of her students needs to work on, from being able to swim with others to being careful on the edge of the pool to not being afraid of the water. And Ms. Preiss can list the different goals she has for each of her students.

Dylan Motz, 9, she said, “needs stroke work, interaction with other students and teachers, a sense of trust, and to be aware of the other swimmers in the pools,” she explained.

Dylan Avery, she said, “needs to know that he has to get from one place to another and cannot float around the middle of the pool creating his own world … but it is okay to have his ‘world’ and ‘creatures’ help him get from one place to another in the pool. He also needs to learn to be safe with his sister so that they are both independent swimmers and safe with each other.”

And four-year-old Dillon Haagen-Islami, Ms. Preiss said, “needs to work on his behavior around the pool and knowing the pool rules and what he is or is not allowed to do; for example, he cannot get into the pool until he asks permission and he must wait for a response that it is okay to get in the pool. He also needs to know that he can help himself in case he gets into trouble once in the water, and where he should look for help if he needs it.”

While water safety is certainly a major component of the class, even Ms. Preiss acknowledged that a large part of the class is just having fun.

“The class is a chance for these kids to have a break,” Ms. Preiss added. “It gives them that world of ‘I’m just like everybody else’”

The class has 17 students and about an equal number of volunteer instructors, most of whom are members of, or friends of, the Preiss family. MegAnn’s three daughters, Briana, Shaina and Marina, each work with the kids, who have become more like family than students.

Ms. Preiss lit up as she reminisced about running into a former student on the street who screamed, “Meg!” and ran up to her, arms open, for a big hug. “You can have the worst day and just have one hug, one smile,” one sudden success “with something we’ve worked on for weeks,” she said, “and it changes everything.”

Her love for the class comes from her mother HazeAnn Smith, who had an Adaptive Acquatics class in Toledo, Ohio in the 1970s. Those were the days when Ms. Preiss was a self-described “Y rat” and sometimes was pulled out of class on Fridays, when there weren’t enough volunteers, to help run it.

Ms. Preiss said she had a great admiration for her mother, who did her work, she added, at a time when there was a lot less understanding and compassion for those who were different. She even wheeled herself around 
town one day to show how difficult it was to get around without legs. That advocacy and desire to help others was ingrained in Ms. Preiss and it has been instilled in her daughters.

Marina, Shaina and Briana agreed that the class is a chance to give back with only the simplest smile or giggle in return. They played a word association game among themselves, naming the students in class, and coming up with words such as “fun, cute, best friend, social, hard-worker, smiles, imagination, sweetheart, adorable, flirt, go-go, Elmo and I love you,” according to their mother.

And even some of the girls’ friends look forward to volunteering for the Adaptive Acquatics class, including Lily Goldman, Morgan German, Meaghan McCaffrey, Sarah Philipbar, Tucker Costello and Alyssa Drew. Loren Burnett and Barbara Farrell also currently volunteer. Ms. Preiss is always looking for new volunteers to help and noted that local students do get community service credits for their work.

The class is held on Wednesday afternoons from October until the middle of June. This year, the class will end around June 19.

The session costs $35 for members of the Y, which operates the RECenter, and $45 for nonmembers. Ms. Preiss said that scholarships are available as well as help from groups including the Kiwanis Club. Even volunteers who teach the class have sometimes paid a student’s fee because, as Ms. Preiss said, “Money should not be an issue for not being here.”

While Ms. Preiss said she does not push anything on her pupils, she would like to get them involved in the Special Olympics.

“I think it is a testimony to the 
class that, as members and other parents walk by, they stop and smile or even sit down and just watch what is going on in the water,” Ms. Preiss said. “The class is such a combination of unique individuals with their own special needs, yet they manage to function and act not only as a class but as an extended family.”

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