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Central YMCA swim program soothes special-needs children

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Seven-year-old Joel Smith, who suffered from a stroke at a young age, swims with instructor Mike Augustine at the Central Lake YMCA on a weekly basis to help build up his strength. | Morgan Glier~Sun-Times Media

Updated: March 10, 2012 8:29AM



Joel Smith suffered a stroke when he was only eight hours old, causing weakness on his right side -- particularly his arm -- and affecting other motor and verbal skills.

About four-and-a half years ago, Kelly Smith of Vernon Hills enrolled her son in a swim program for special-needs children at the Central YMCA in Vernon Hills. The water therapy has proved to be a godsend.

“It’s helped him a lot,” she said. “Not only has it improved his swimming skills but it’s given him a lot more endurance and it helps strengthen that (right) arm,” he said.

“The water is therapeutic for him,” said Kelly Smith. “The warmth and buoyancy gives him a weightless kind of feeling.”

Kelly Smith said when Joel first started in the program he was resistant to even getting in the water.

“Now, he can jump in, swim and even go underwater a little bit,” she said. “His skills have greatly improved.”

Kelly Smith said the water therapy has greatly enhanced Joel’s development and confidence and he now participates in a variety of other activities. “He swims, he plays soccer, he does yoga as well,” she said.

‘Talk your ear off’

The swim therapy also seems to have improved Joel’s development and verbal skills. “When we first started, his speech was quite delayed but now he can talk your ear off,” she said. Joel currently is enrolled in a SEDOL class at Butterfield School in Libertyville.

Mary Craig, association program director for the Lake County Family YMCA, which includes both the Vernon Hills and Waukegan Y facilities, said she started the swim program for special-needs students about six years ago after talking with a mother with two Down Syndrome children.

Craig said the doctors told the mother at the time that her children would likely be unable to walk. After attending the swim program at the YMCA, she said the children, who now live in California, are able to walk, talk and attend school. She said the doctors were astonished by their improvement.

“Water is soothing, especially for kids with muscle tension or deterioration,” she said. “There’s no strain. Their body relaxes in the water.”

Through the swim program, she has seen special needs children improve their motor skills, confidence and interaction with others. She said the program, which originally started out with only two children, now has about 27 to 30 students enrolled in two Friday afternoon classes.

Debbie Morettini, owner of Kids Therapy in Libertyville and Barrington, who volunteers as a pediatric therapist for the swim classes, said it is a “wonderful program” for children with special needs.

“It’s been great for the kids,” she said. “Most of the kids feel really comfortable in the water. We pretty much have a one-on-one ratio with the kids.”

Persons who like more information about the swim program or other enrichment programs offered at the Central YMCA can call (847) 367-6797.

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