“Mom! Look, look,” shouts 12-year old Jayden before plunging under the water. A few seconds later he resurfaces with a watery grin, proudly hoisting the dive toy now in his hand.
Jayden is one of the participants in the STRIDE youth swim program, now in its 19th year. “He has gained so much confidence in the two years he’s been coming here,” says his mother, Kathy Bleyman. “I’m amazed every time I see him jump into the deep end.”
The program is offered in 10-week sessions, three times per year, at the Greenbush Area YMCA pool. Each of the participants (ages 5 and up) has special needs which may include physical and/or mental disabilities.
Where the swim program excels – like all STRIDE programs – is by “meeting participants where they’re at and progressing from there,” says coordinator Emelia Carlino. “Our number one goal is to help each swimmer feel comfortable and safe in the water.”
Many of the parents with children in the program have found STRIDE after being frustrated by previous attempts to acclimate their children to the water. Whether the parents acted as instructors or enrolled their children in other programs, the hoped-for results never materialized.
“We used to live in Florida,” says Kathy Bleyman. “We registered Jayden for an instructional program there, but it wasn’t the same. They didn’t have anything like [STRIDE].”
STRIDE has an uncanny ability to attract volunteers with unsurpassed levels of compassion and empathy, and the swim program is no exception. Each swimmer, several of whom can struggle in group instructional settings, works one-on-one with a dedicated volunteer.
Cathleen Peter believes that her six-year old daughter Emma has been one of the beneficiaries of this approach. “Emma has a high IQ but a poor attention span. Group instruction can be a challenge for her. STRIDE’s one-on-one approach mirrors the way she learns best.”
Marleah Lybolt, now in her sixth year as a volunteer in the program, says, “I believe the key to the program’s success is building a foundation of trust between the instructor and the swimmer. Once that’s in place, the participants can be confident knowing we will be here for them, and they will have our support no matter how hard it gets.”
Far from being a one way street, the volunteers benefit as much as the swimmers. Marleah herself has struggled with an anxiety disorder for much of her life. “Getting involved with this program has allowed me to become a more confident and secure person,” she says.
“There was a time when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to graduate from high school. Now I’m in my third year of college. I owe a lot to this program and how it has helped me personally. Staying involved is my way of returning the favor.”
Beyond the skills swimmers learn in the pool, the program also fosters a family-like dynamic among the participants. “Jayden is a social kid. He likes to interact with others,” says his mother. “He looks forward to seeing the other kids as much as he does swimming. When he’s here, he feels like part of a group.”
It’s hard to ask much more from a program.