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Western students Kari McArdle, left, and Brandon Lee, right, shoot some hoops with Frank Dalstone, center, during the Adaptive Aquatics program on Thursday, Oct. 15, at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. // Photo by Daisey James

Toes on the edge of the pool, she watched everyone dive one by one into the 10-foot tank. Her friends looked at her, anticipating her own dive. Right into a belly flop, Daphne lunged into the water, quickly surfacing with a grin.

The year before, Daphne Christensen couldn’t even blow bubbles in the water; now she’s diving in the deep end, Recreation Instructor and Adaptive Aquatics Program Coordinator Rhonda Flatz Stouder said.

With the help of Western seniors and recreation majors, Will Hanson and Amanda Neal, Daphne is able to swim on her own and enjoy all of the fun that comes with being in the water.

Adaptive Aquatics, a program held at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center, helps give those with special needs the opportunity to participate in aquatic activities. The activities range from stretching, various water sports and swimming lessons, Flatz Stouder said.

“My goal is to get them swimming,” Flatz Stouder said. “If they’re not swimming yet, we keep working on it.”

People tend to fall in love with the program, Neal said. The participants have found friendship with each other as well as the volunteers and because of that, they keep coming back, Neal said.

This is Daphne’s second year participating in Adaptive Aquatics, Neal said. Hanson and Neal worked with Daphne throughout last year’s eight-week program. They made it their goal to teach Daphne how to swim on her own and prepare her for the Special Olympics, Hanson said.

“It’s very much a learning experience,” Hanson said. “It is cool to see the progression of what someone can learn through a quarter.”

After Hanson and Neal got to know Daphne’s personality, they were able to figure out how they were going to teach her, Neal said.

An Adaptive Aquatics program participant works with a student volunteer swimming in the lap pool at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. // Photo by Daisey James

“Daphne doesn’t really like rules,” Neal said. “I adapt to her. If you figure out the personality first, it is easier to figure out how to teach them and what they want to learn.”

When Daphne first started learning to swim she started with four floatation packs supporting her, Flatz Stouder said. They secretly took floatation packs off when Daphne wasn’t looking. Now, she swims on her own and jumps into the dive tank.

Most volunteers are first introduced to the program through Flatz Stouder. She often speaks in Western classrooms in order to spark students’ interest in the rewarding opportunity, Flatz Stouder said.

Intern and Assistant Director of Adaptive Aquatics, Kaycee Davis joined the program after hearing about it in her kinesiology class.

“I initially did it for credit for my class, but I really liked it the first time and really wanted to come back,” Davis said. 

Flatz Stouder takes each volunteer’s unique talents into consideration when pairing them with the program’s participants. She wants to make sure that Western students are getting a valuable experience toward their future careers during their time with the program, she said.

“If they are a speech communications major I try to partner them with someone who has difficulty with clarity of speech,” Flatz Stouder said.

When Flatz Stouder started with the program, she only had a couple returning volunteers, she said. After she altered the program to be more beneficial for students, she started to see them returning for multiple sessions.

“You learn so much about people and how to work with different types of people," Davis said.  "It’s just not something you get to do in class.” 

Hanson and Neal are required by their major to complete 240 hours of recreation-based volunteering, Hanson said. Hanson’s major is focused on community recreation and Neal is focused on therapeutic recreation.

“I learn more from [the participants] than I do in the classroom,” Neal said.

The program runs three days a week for eight weeks and welcomes anyone of special needs who is three years and older, Flatz Stouder said.

There is no set course for the participants, Flatz Stouder said. Each course is adjusted to the person depending on age, capability, special needs and willingness.

The volunteers teach various skills like breathing underwater, putting their faces in the water and various swimming styles like butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, Davis said.

Adaptive Aquatics Program Coordinator Rhonda Flatz Stouder talks with program participant Skyler Hamilton, left, and student volunteer Tyler Gardner Darnell, right, at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. // Photo by Daisey James

Volunteers often help older participants with exercise, stretching and range of motion. For those in wheelchairs volunteers will get them swimming in the water and in the hot tub for therapeutic stretching, Flatz Stouder said,

A lot of the participants have mental or physical disabilities and find it easier to learn and talk out of the water, Davis said.

Hanson said there is a big shortage of opportunities for people with disabilities.

“After high school there aren’t many recreational opportunities provided for people with disabilities, so it is really important to get them included in the community," Hanson said.

For those with disabilities, the program teaches water-based skills and provides them with activities and social opportunities, Neal said.

“What’s really cool is that there is a very involved adaptive community program here. Anybody with adaptive needs [can recieve] great resources,” Flatz Stouder said.

The learning opportunities the program provides for the volunteers and participants are the most important part of the program, Davis said.

“Once you get into the pool, it’s all smiles,” Hanson said.

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