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Rave Reviews For City’s Pilot Sensory Sharks And Mermaids
The little fish himself, Westley Bauman, was on hand to assist wherever he was needed. Photo Contributed

A new four-week pilot program called Sensory Sharks and Mermaids began earlier this month at the Community Pool hosted by the City of Riverbank’s Parks and Recreation Department. This free program was open to children under 18 years of age with special aquatic needs. The idea for the program was created by Alyssa Bauman who brought it to Parks and Recreation Director Sue Fitzpatrick to help youth in the community that have special needs.

“Sue at Parks and Recreation had wanted to do something like this for a while but had concerns about if there was a need,” stated Bauman. “My son West (Westley) had been taking swim lessons through parks and rec for years and was always accommodated but I didn’t feel like that was accessible to a large population of kids who couldn’t handle the atmosphere of a hectic swim class with a lot of kids in the pool.”

Fitzpatrick reviewed the idea presented by Bauman and advised the City Manager that the Parks and Rec team could administer the program.

“I am a Recreation Therapist and have done adapted aquatics in the past,” added Fitzpatrick. “Also, our swim staff has been working with special needs participants but by mainstreaming within our current programs. We do this by adding a buddy. Staff still needs a lot of training which is a challenge since our pool is not open year round and our staff is seasonal. They have been doing great, though, with the participants. I am so proud of our instructors.”

Attending college to become a social worker, Bauman was taking a child advocacy class and the final project involved using advocacy skills for the community.

“I think Sue was really excited when I said I know if we offer this people will join,” added Bauman. “She created an amazing program with very kind, smart instructors and I have been networking to make sure within the special needs community to get kiddos into the program.”

During the hot summer months several people spend time in pools, lakes, rivers, or the ocean to stay cool. Due to statistics that Bauman found in 2009, 2010, and 2011 accidental drowning accounted for 91 percent total of the U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger and 32 percent of autism parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning. That prompted her to take action along with a little inspiration from her son Westley.

“We are a community built on the river with over 10 miles of canals running through our neighborhoods,” said Bauman of the water dangers. “These are the statistics that keep us parents up at night.”

Westley has taken swim lessons through the City of Riverbank since he was two and that was top priority for their family since they have a pool where he got to practice as well.

“Westley is part fish,” expressed Bauman. “He was confidently swimming without a life jacket by age three. Swimming for him has always been therapeutic, it’s really the thing he loves the most. I wanted other kids to have that opportunity. I wanted parents to feel safe with their kids around water.”

Bauman shared that the following sponsors helped make this program a success, Riverbank Rotary, Oakdale Air and Heating, Oakdale Locksmith, TJM Construction, T Shirt Theory, and the Sweesy Family and made it possible for the kids to have team shirts and new equipment.

“I think the first session went really good,” said Bauman. “We got all the kids in the water and parents said that they felt like their kids were in a safe and caring environment.”

The program will wrap up this Saturday and was held each Saturday in the month of July for a four-week session. There were several children that participated in the program that was split into two groups, with the first session swimming from 10 a.m. until 11 a.m. and the second group going from 11 a.m. until noon.

The City provides the instructors, lifeguards, and equipment for the program. The families had to go through an assessment process that informed City staff about the participants and they met with the parents twice before the program began. Staff also had time to train and prepare for the new pilot program.

“Mainstreaming works out well but it is nice also for parents to have a choice of a specialized program also where the environment is set up to be less stressful and we can bring in some adaptive equipment, music, toys they like, etc.,” stated Fitzpatrick. “The City decided to try a “pilot program” to see how we do with a four-week program for those on the Autistic Spectrum. This is really not long enough but at least we could see how we do and how the families and participants do.”

Although the summer has been extremely busy for the Parks and Rec department with swim lessons, the swim team, and day camps, they managed to add the program into their schedule.

“I am excited and so glad we tried to do this,” added Fitzpatrick. “The parents are very grateful and I think they are happy with the program so far. The ultimate goal for us is for the kids to be comfortable in the water and know how to get themselves out if needed. This takes time and we will need a lot more than four weeks but I am hoping we can expand the program.”