When the Arc Tank concept was launched last year by Northeast Arc, the idea was to attract proposals that would positively disrupt disability services to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism and their families.
It’s hard to imagine meeting that mandate better than by making significant changes to a century-old program, but that’s what the YMCA of the North Shore is doing with its Water Wise program.
The YMCA received a $30,000 grant in the initial round of Arc Tank funding – made possible by a $1 million donation from Marblehead businessman Steven P. Rosenthal – to implement Water Wise, a program designed to make swimming lessons accessible to children with autism spectrum disorder.
According to a 2017 study, children with autism are 160 times as likely to drown than typical children. Also, more than 90 percent of deaths of children with autism are due to drowning. With that in mind, the YMCA designed a program to bring children with autism into traditional swim lessons, as opposed to separating them.
“With 1 in 47 kids diagnosed with autism, we thought it was imperative that we do this,” said Chris Lovasco, CEO of YMCA of the North Shore. “The goal is to get each child integrated into mainstream swim lessons.”
Greater Beverly YMCA Executive Director Judith Cronin said there is a critical need for this type of program.
“People in the autism community don’t feel as if they have good options when it comes to getting children into the water safely,” Cronin said. “A lot of people believe it’s not realistic for kids with autism to safely swim.”
The first stage of the Water Wise program is “teaching the children to be invited to the water and orienting them to the environment,” Cronin said. “Parents see that this is different than traditional swim lessons.”
Lovasco said approximately 47 children, ages 4-12, have enrolled in the Water Wise program, which has been implemented at the Greater Beverly YMCA and Lynch/van Otterloo YMCA in Marblehead, with a goal of bringing it to all seven branches in the YMCA of the North Shore system. The YMCA tailors the instruction to each child’s needs; some children require a 1:1 lesson, while others are integrated into group lessons.
“We evaluate each child and place them into an environment that fits them best,” Lovasco said.
Cronin said it didn’t take long for word to spread, with children referred to the program from Northeast Arc as well as the North Shore Education Consortium, which serves individuals from 20 communities. “We’re reaching a population that typically looks for specialized programs,” Cronin said.
As the YMCA looks forward to the second year of the grant, Lovasco said the focus will be on creating a training program for swim instructors to help them understand how to integrate children with disabilities into their classes. “We want to make our mainstream lessons adaptable to people with intellectual and physical disabilities,” he said.
Northeast Arc CEO Jo Ann Simons said the Arc Tank is addressing the fact that “disability is one of those civil-rights issues that has long been ignored. We’re thankful that Steve Rosenthal’s generosity is allowing us to make a significant impact on a population that has traditionally been under-served.”
Arc Tank 2.0 will be held on Nov. 27 at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Organizations that advance to the final stage will present their proposals to an expert panel of judges, who will award another $200,000 in funding. The deadline to submit proposals is Sept. 18. For more information click here.