BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A group of local kids spent their summer learning to "Swim Strong" in a unique program that gets bigger every year.
Getting in the pool at the Woman's Center for Wellness was the favorite part of the week for many of the participants. The smiles on their faces were easy to spot on a recent visit to the final session of the summer.
9-year-old Alex Minvielle was one of the fastest in the water. Her classmates range in age from 5 to 18 and all have special needs that go beyond traditional swim lessons.
"It might range from cerebral palsy to spina bifida, or arthrogryposis. Some of our kids are recovering from cancer treatment," said Shelly Worthington, the Baton Rouge physical therapist who developed the program.
Children with special needs can be at higher risk for obesity since many use a wheelchair for much of the day. Burning calories in a pool is a good, safe way to overcome that obstacle.
Each student is paired with a Swim Strong "shadow," a trained volunteer who's always in the pool for support. Shadows are often college students pursuing therapy professions or careers in education or medicine. Their helping hands under the water help keep those determined smiles that Worthington loves to see on the faces above.
"One of the goals of Swim Strong is for them to enjoy the freedom of movement that water allows," she said. "And our kids, when they get in the pool, they are free."
Watching her wave to the underwater camera, you'd never guess Alex spends most of her time in a wheelchair.
"I've been catching some waves," she said with a smirk after class was over.
Minvielle has been swimming for five years alongside her shadow Kristy Mayes. Spina bifida is the last thing on her mind once she hits the water.
"There's a lot more space, so if I need to do something, I can just do it," Alex said. "I use my arms to tread the water, and I was pretty fast."
Pretty fast? She helped her team win a relay race with a solid performance swimming anchor.
"Four years ago she was scared to even blow bubbles or put her face in the water," Worthington recalled. "I've watched her go to being able to swim underwater, flip herself over, paddle on her back, and then flip herself back over on her belly and keep swimming."
Between the games, participants focus on their individual goals, which are written on big plastic sheets and brought into the pool. Four years ago the program started with eight kids. This year they're up to 40.
"We're working hard to really use it as a stepping stone and get kids that need us in here to build that strength and coordination and endurance, and then graduate them on to more traditional swim lessons in our community," Worthington explained.
Swim Strong is fully funded by donors and relies heavily on the Foundation for Woman's and other community sponsors.