Michelle Bowden sat on the edge of the pool, her feet dangling over. Tentatively, the 7-year-old kicked at the water, as if trying not to splash her pink-striped Hello Kitty swimsuit. She paused, looking around at the other kids jumping into the pool, some gleefully, some more hesitant. She kicked her feet again, more forcefully, and laughed.
Bowden has Down syndrome, a chromosomal defect which causes developmental and physical abnormalities. She is learning to swim through SNAP, Special Needs Athletic Programs, which matches student volunteers with children who have special needs. The Saturday-morning swim program has become a highlight for all the kids – and most of their parents as well.
“She likes the water, and she’s learned a lot already,” said Michelle’s mother Maria Bowden, a special education teacher in Randolph who works with children who have autism. “She’s learned to trust the water, with the noodle to just float. She’s learning ‘big arms,’ which are the beginnings of swimming.”
The SNAP swimmers splashed around the College of St. Elizabeth’s four-lane pool, their mentors close by to teach technique and offer encouragement. Enrollment is presently limited to just 25 – divided by ability – and the program has a long waiting list. David May of Morris Twp. coordinates SNAP swimming, with his 13-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, as co-director and one of the mentors. Ryan May, a 15-year-old with autism, is one of SNAP’s most accomplished swimmers – as well as a member of Morristown’s team. Many of the mentors are his high school teammates.
Public schools are obligated to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in sports, a policy which the United States Department of Education clarified on Friday.
“We don’t push kids here,” said David May, a principal with educational publishing consultants Armstrong May Associates. “We let them see where they’re at, where they’re comfortable. I don’t care what their disability is. It’s amazing what these kids can reach.”
Five swimmers, including Ryan May, have “graduated” from SNAP to the Sea Ott swim club, which practices immediately afterward. The top SNAP group actually runs its sessions like a team, with a dry-land warm-up under the direction of a mentor-“coach” before getting into the water.
“We can have so much fun, get exercise, and make new friends,” said 14-year-old Erin Quinn of Madison, who has autism. “I love being underwater. I feel like a fish or a mermaid.”
One of every 49 children in New Jersey is diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released last year. The national average is one in 88, so it is nearly twice as likely for a child in this state to be diagnosed with autism.
Matthew Certner founded SNAP while at Morristown in 2006 as a sports clinic for children with special needs, and his younger brother, Zach Certner, now a junior, currently runs it. SNAP has since expanded to 11 different programs – including art, taekwondo and music – as well as sensitivity training in communities and school districts throughout New Jersey.
“Kids learn but have fun at the same time,” said 11-year-old Katie Rosa of Morristown, a SNAP volunteer whose younger brother, William, has autism. “I learn from them that difference doesn’t make a difference. They’re the same people.”
Dylan Nielsen, a 14-year-old from Long Valley who has autism, learned to dive off starting blocks and earned his Boy Scouts swimming merit badge. He also participated in a SNAP golf program with PGA professionals, and a soccer program for kids with special needs in Mendham. Aakash and Ashish Kanjani, brothers from Morristown who frequently squabble, use SNAP to channel their energy into more positive activities.
“You give them a small trophy, a couple of cheers, and people to back them up,” Zach Certner said. “That’s the best thing we can do for them.”