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Swim program for kids with autism accepting registrations

By Staff | Aug 21, 2015

A water safety program for children with autism or disabilities is registering for its next session.

Organized by the Florida Helps Foundation, the PADLS – Persons with Autism or Disabilities Learn to Swim – Program aims to teach drowning prevention techniques to participants. Run on a grant from Autism Speaks, the free program covers how to stay afloat, focuses on swimming to a ledge and more.

“Our goal is not to teach great swimming strokes,” Mike VonPlinsky, the PADLS Program founder and executive director of the Florida Helps Foundation, said. “The most important thing is water safety.”

Accidental drowning is the leading cause of death in the United States for autistic and special needs youth under the age of 15. For every child that drowns, four more are hospitalized for near-drownings.

“Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death,” he said.

After starting the foundation a couple of years ago and doing some charity work within the autism community, VonPlinsky learned about the drowning numbers and lack of a water safety program.

“I wanted a program that we directly ran, instead of giving away money to a cause,” he said.

In December, the foundation received the $23,000 grant to start the PADLS Program.

The first group of participants began its session in early July at the Cape Coral Yacht Club pool. The participants meet twice per week for a 30-minute class and are close to completing the full session.

“We have 14 kids,” VonPlinsky said. “The kids are from all over the area.”

Participants come from the Cape, Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres, as well as Estero.

“We do one-on-one instruction,” he said. “It’s very specialized attention.”

The second session is set to begin in mid- or late September. Families can sign up by filling out an assessment form, which covers the child’s medical, behavioral and communication information.

“Obviously, the most important criteria is we’re focusing on autistic or special needs children – the mental disability aspect of things,” VonPlinsky said.

One obstacle with the second session will be working with participants’ schedules.

“The challenge now is kids are going back to school,” he said.

The PADLS Program is also in need of more water safety instructors.

“I’m aggressively trying to get more instructors involved,” VonPlinsky said.

He is hoping to draw the interest of people who work regularly with and have experience with children with autism or disabilities. A water safety training class will be held for those interested in joining.

VonPlinsky is also searching for more local pools that want to get involved.

“A key part of the program is identifying community pools that will offer us free swim time,” he said, adding that this allows the bulk of the funding to go toward operations, paying instructors and such.

The Cape Coral Yacht Club pool has already signed up for the second session, and officials are speaking with the Fort Myers Aquatic Center, as well as other pools within Lee County.

“I’d like to get a pool in Lehigh, and one down closer to Estero,” VonPlinsky said. “We want to minimize the distance that parents have to travel to get to a location where we can do the training.”

In an effort to keep the program free, donations are accepted and fundraisers are planned.

On Nov. 14, the Back Bay Bash will be held at Bootleggers Waterfront BBQ, located at Salty Sam’s Marina, on Estero Bay. The family-friendly music festival will support the PADLS Program.

“My goal is to keep this free,” he said.

For more information about the PADLS Program, to register for the upcoming session or to find out how you can support the program, visit online at: www.flhelps.org or email mvp@flhelps.org.