Making a splash

The Winchester Swim Club’s junior lifeguard program has fostered a community while giving local kids with special needs a place to swim.

Waves of kindness: Junior lifeguards and parents at Winchester Swim Club help special-needs kids on Saturday mornings. Lifeguards typically repeat week-after-week so that students can build a level of trust. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTOS

Every Saturday for the past five summers, the gates to the Winchester Swim Club pool opened early. Normally accessed by paying club members, a different crowd splashes in the water those early Saturday mornings.

Families of children with special needs use this time to let their children enjoy the water and learn important swimming skills. The club’s junior lifeguard program gives these kids and their families an opportunity not available much elsewhere.

The program was started seven years ago by Claire Alminde, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and her daughter, Claire Ann. Claire noticed there was a high volume of special-needs children who were typically left out of activities other kids could participate in.

“We had three goals based on parents’ input,” Alminde said. “Water safety, socializing and making friends, and having fun.”

Alminde and her three kids — Claire Ann, Patrick and Chris — served as the program’s first lifeguards. Now, numerous Winchester lifeguards show up early on Saturday to help the kids, completely voluntarily.

Lessons are taught on an unstructured basis. Each kid is assigned his or her own lifeguard who will teach them at a one-on-one, personalized pace. Lifeguards typically repeat week after week so students can build up a level of trust.

How did Alminde convince these teenagers to give up every Saturday of their summer to volunteer?

“You would think it would be difficult,” she said. “It was effortless.”

At the beginning of the program, parents fill out a form with goals for their child. Lifeguards typically teach survival swimming first, meaning the kids learn to swim back and touch the wall as soon as they enter the water. Some kids opt to build up to more complicated skills, such as diving off the diving board.

Last year, a student’s sibling confided in Alminde that his one-year goal for his brother was to have him dive off the diving board. That goal was accomplished within a day, much to his family’s surprise.

This year, they set a new goal for the student: in three years, to swim all the way across the pool.

Alminde bumped that goal down to one year.

Fun in the sun: Brothers Tony (left) and John Burke enjoy the pool on a recent Saturday.

“He likes polar bears, so I got a plastic polar bear and had it on a tube to lead him,” she said. “He finished on the last day of home swim, and his mom said, ‘As a family, this is the best night of our lives.’”

Others students want to learn less-conventional things. Gavin Goschinski, general manager of the swim club, recounted a student with autism who had latched onto the animated movie Finding Nemo. The student had wanted to emulate the experience of swimming in the ocean like the fish characters of the film.

“[The student would] swim by the pump and experience gallons of water blasting on them,” he said. “It was soothing to them. The joy a kid gets is priceless.”

Alminde talked about a student whose favorite part wasn’t even the water.

“One of our student’s first questions when she got in the pool was, ‘Where’s the filter?’” Alminde recalled. She said the student was fascinated with figuring out how things worked.

Goschinski took the student down to the pump room to show the student how everything worked.

“I think that was a more exhilarating day for him than it was for the student,” Alminde said.

Funding the club isn’t a challenge — the only expenses are pool floats, T-shirts and lunches for the kids. To afford these expenses, Steve McLaughlin, a lifetime visitor of the pool, organized a yearly biathlon called the Splash and Dash to raise money.

About 50 people a year participate in the running and swimming event, which raises between $500 and $1,000 a year. It’s held each year on a Saturday in July. Anyone can participate — kids complete a mini-relay while adults finish the entire two-mile run. All proceeds go toward the club.

McLaughlin learned to swim at Winchester, and credited the pool for making him a hard worker (he worked his first job there). His grandfather was a founding member.

While the main objective is obviously to allow kids with special needs the opportunity to swim, that isn’t the part of the club Alminde is proudest of.

“Siblings are also really important to the program,” she said. “Part of our focus is to educate our lifeguards. The siblings will talk to the lifeguards and anyone else involved to help them appreciate differences.”

The kids also gain social benefits. Once swim time is up, the kids gather for lunch. They order their own food from the pool’s food vendor to practice their social skills, then eat together at the same table.

Alminde said the biggest unforeseen benefit of the program is giving parents a way to connect. Parents bond over schools, treatments and therapies, struggles with insurance companies, and, above all, support.

Just ask Joe DeFelice to back up that sentiment. His kid, Joey, has been swimming in the pool since the program started, and could spend hours swimming at a time.

“Everyone here knows Joey,” DeFelice said.

Joey has developed a comfort level with other frequent visitors of the pool, who in turn are able to understand what he’s trying to communicate. DeFelice said Joey is a “people person,” but still has issues communicating with others.

“Joey was a little tiny thing when he first started, and now he’s all grown up,” Alminde said proudly.

DeFelice said the program affords him a few rare hours of relaxation, and has also connected him with other parents going through similar experiences.

When reflecting on his years at the club, DeFelice said the first time Joey jumped off the diving board without a lifejacket sticks out to him.

“He wore a lifejacket for years, but it was more for our peace of mind than anything else,” he said.

“He dove off like it was nothing, and just swam to the side. He was young [5 or 6 years old], so to see him do that at a younger age than what other kids are doing it, it’s like wow, don’t sell my son short. It kind of brings a tear to your eye.” ••

Winchester Swim Club is located at 8814 Ashton Road. To learn more about the pool, search Winchester Swim Club on Facebook. Prospective members should contact the Membership Committee at wscmember@gmail.com