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Aquatics program helps people with disabilities enjoy movement

By Staff | Aug 3, 2011

Kevin James, center, and his mother Lynn enjoy the new aquatics program brought to Sanibel by its instructor Chris Graham this spring. The Adapted Aquatics Ocean Swim program takes place each Saturday at one of three Sanibel locations.

While still in college, Chris Graham was left with a poor prognosis following an automobile crash. At 20 years of age, he was constrained to a wheelchair and faced a long physical rehabilitation journey.

But it wasn’t until a friend, the late Peter Lynch, led Graham to the ocean where he found the “wonderful spiritual gift” of freedom one he would like to share with others dealing with physical challenges.

This spring, Graham created a program titled the Adapted Aquatics Ocean Swim program through the American Red Cross. Participants are given the freedom of movement that buoyancy provides and enables them to experience the joy of the ocean.

“For people with physical disabilities, this program may mean the difference between a life of isolation and segregation or a life of possibilities,” Graham said.

Water safety is an important part of the program, but it also includes teaching of swimming and stroke development for the physically disabled. For young Kevin James, who suffers from the rare neurodevelopment disorder Williams syndrome, Graham’s new program has changed his life.

“He has come a long way,” said Kevin’s mother Lynn James. “He is lucky to get this service,” which is at no cost to her and her son.

In Kevin’s 20 years of life, he has undergone seven cardiac surgeries and three spinal infusions due to his condition. Spending a majority of his days in a wheelchair, the aquatics program has given Kevin the opportunity to be vertical and have the freedom of movement in the ocean. Water has widely known physical, psychological and recreational gains.

The educational program is based on the text “Adapted Aquatics Programming” by Lepore, Gayle and Stevens. It is not a medical or recreational therapy program and is run by volunteers like Graham, who are overseen by the American Red Cross. The goal of the course is to teach participants how to safely enjoy the ocean by starting with a readiness assessment. Sanibel resident and volunteer Wil Compton has created specially designed paddleboards for the program to give students a sense of freedom and independence never before experienced by them.

“Wil is currently designing and fabricating a surf chair that will float the student into and out of the water, which is ideal,” explained Graham. “It is so generous the receive help from Wil and Billy Kirkland of Billy’s Bike Rentals, as many of our students are without means.”

Although the program is through the Red Cross, Graham also introduced it to members of the Sanibel-Captiva Lions Club. Past president Tom Hoover said several members have committed to helping Graham at the beaches where the classes are taught.

“He is helping the very people we help,” Hoover said of the club’s mission to help the less fortunate and physically disabled. “Why wouldn’t we get involved, especially after watching what he does. It’s a great program, even in its early stages.”

Graham teaches the aquatics program on Bowman’s Beach, at the Lighthouse beach and along Causeway Island No. 1 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. The class consists of eight-week sessions at no charge. To sign up, contact Graham at 239-395-3642 or send an e-mail to cgraham@embarqmail.com.