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Non-profit awarded $23,000 grant to provide water safety to children with autism, special needs

By Staff | Nov 20, 2014

A local foundation dedicated to supporting the development and growth of non-profit businesses and to raising funds for selected Florida charities around the area -and the state – was just awarded one of the most prestigious grants available to non-profit groups.

After months of diligent research, studies and paperwork, Florida Helps Foundation of Fort Myers Beach, which was initiated back in 2012, received confirmation that it was being awarded the $23,000 Family Community Services Grant from Autism Speaks, the nationally recognized and highly respected autism science and advocacy organization.

With that funding, the local foundation plans to implement its own PADLS (Persons with Autism or Disabilities Learning to Swim) program, to support the development and management of children with autism and special needs, and encourage water safety.

Mike VonPlinsky, executive director of the Florida Helps Foundation and longtime advocate of Fort Myers Beach non-profits, is eager to get the program on the ground and rolling.

“We are going to use this grant money to start the PADLS program, to start a pilot effort on Fort Myers Beach, that will hopefully grow and help autistic and special needs children throughout our community,” he said. “This will be a specialty, highly tailored program, to teach water safety and swimming skills to autism and special needs kids. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for autistic and special needs kids because, 1) They have a fascinating affinity to water; and 2) because of all the water sources we have down here.”

Accidental drowning among children under the age of 15 is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. VonPlinsky said for every child that drowns, another four are hospitalized for near-drowning accidents. And, due to the sheer number of water sources available around the state (pools, ponds, canals, rivers, lakes and gulf), Florida has the highest death rate from drowning among autistic children in the country.

“Autistic children can often be less aware of the world around them, putting them at an even greater risk of drowning. It is imperative to teach children with autism or special needs to swim as they typically have limited sense of inherent threats or danger and, like most people, they have a true natural affinity for the water,” VonPlinsky said.

With the grant money, VonPlinsky is in the process of planning the water safety courses that will be offered regularly to autistic and special needs children, using board-certified instructors and lifeguards, and plans to have the courses through the slower seasons and summertime, to help with the traffic congestion for the parents/guardians and school schedule for the children.

“The first thing I’m doing is go through a resume call to get people really interested in being lifeguards for this program. Those we select will be sent out to San Diego for a week to take the course on just how to work with teaching children to swim with these illnesses,”?VonPlinsky said. “I?want to launch the program around the time children finish up school, late May or early June, to avoid the seasonal traffic and to be sure the children can make it to the program.”

As this is a heavily subsidized program, VonPlinsky and his volunteer staff plan to host multiple fundraisers, to ensure the program can be done right and continue on through the years. Sponsorships will also be offered to help fund the program.

“We’re really going to be pushing hard to raise additional funds to supplement the grant money, to have a high trainer-to-student ratio in the pool, as well as having some trained autism behavior specialists in the area,” VonPlinsky said. “Depending on how much we can raise will determine how many we can afford to train and put in the water with these children. We are going to have an environment that the parents really trust and appreciate.”

Offering these classes to all children with autism and special needs will not only provide a safe and practical learning facility for the students, but provide some time that the parents and guardians can take a breather for a little bit.

VonPlinsky said caring for children with special needs is very time-consuming, and often very exhausting. The swimming programs with fully certified and trained instructors and aides will allow the parents to step away during the classes, to perhaps get some lunch, do a little shopping or take a quiet stroll on the beach.

“People who have done this program have drastically reduced the chances of drowning. It comes to water safety, not necessarily just swimming. Just having the special skills training and basic swimming skill training drastically reduces the chances of a drowning incident, and we are eager to get these classes started very soon out here,” VonPlinsky said.

The foundation is currently looking for certified lifeguards with experience dealing with children – preferably those with special needs and/or autism – as well as any groups interested in a sponsorship opportunity. If you are interested in offering a sponsorship or donation to help expand the program to a five-county area, and eventually across Florida, email VonPlinsky: mvp@FLhelps.org.

For further information on the Florida Helps Foundation of Fort Myers Beach or its newly implemented PADLS program, visit FLHelps.org or find the foundation on Facebook by searching FLHelps.