At first glance, you might think there is nothing remarkable about the swimming pool located on South Q Street in West Pensacola, or the children who are in it. It would be worth taking a second look. Because in the pool, special needs children are finding hope and strength and confidence and a place in the world where they don’t feel different.
Seastars Aquatics Executive Director and Head Coach Robin Heller says there’s no differentiation here. “When they walk in the door, they’re a person and they all get treated the same. We don’t look at the disability, we look at the capability.”
Robin Heller runs and coaches this non-profit, free swim team for special needs children. While the children have a variety of special needs, many are autistic and have difficulty with speech, emotions, and behavior. Heller says the discipline of swimming, and the freedom of being in the water, work wonders.
“We have nonverbal kids who come out speaking. It’s something about the way they hold their mouth to blow the bubbles.”
I went into the water with Heller and and a young swimmer named Luke. Luke doesn’t talk much, but in the water, he verbally identified all the objects we handed him, and articulated their colors.
Rocky Parra is the mother of another student named Matthew. She has words of praise for Heller. “Every child who comes to her is different and she meets every child right where they are.” Robin’s son Matthew is autistic and has been swimming with Robin for 5 years.
“With Robin, he’s learned how to swim and that gives him a lot of pride and of joy.”
Another of Heller’s success stories is a 3 year old named Blake, who has developmental and speech delays. His grandmother, Susan Barnes, says his progress has been remarkable.
“When he first started he was just a noodle, barely scooching across the floor. He’s taking steps now, not independently, but he is walking.”
Is every day happy at the pool? No. The very nature of the reason these kids are here can be tough.
“I used to cry a lot,” says Heller.
But those tears of frustration give way, to tears of joy.. and knowing she’s helping these children do things they might never have thought possible.
“Knowing you are the happy in their life makes it worth it.”
The Seastars swim team is free to special needs as well as underprivileged children who qualify. Robin teaches swim lessons to help offset the costs of the coaching the team. For more information on this program, you can go to the Seastars Aquatics Facebook page.