Swim Strong

Waiting for class to begin, in a program called Swim Strong, Luke Ickes, 11, with swim goggles pushed back on his head, described the program as “awesome.”

A Boy Scout and student this coming fall at Prairieville Middle, Luke, who has cerebral palsy, loves to swim at home in the family’s above-ground pool, said his mom, Leslie Ickes.

This summer, he went to his first sleep-away camp and loved it, she said.

And now, he’s enjoying Swim Strong.

Swim Strong, for children ages 5 to 18, “builds strength, endurance and independence in the pool,” said Shelly Worthington, the pediatric physical therapist who established it.

Now in its second summer, the class held at Woman’s Center for Wellness is for children who may have decreased strength, endurance and/or motor control.

But the class isn’t physical therapy for the children and teens; it’s a wellness program that “ideally could prepare them for a swim class with their peers,” Worthington said.

The participants may have impairments related to diagnoses of cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal cord injury, Asperger’s syndome or hypotonia, a medical condition of decreased muscle tone.

“Swimming is a great means of building core strength and improving cardiovascular endurance,” Worthington said.

The children and youth are paired in the pool with trained volunteers from the community, who serve as what Worthington calls “shadows” for the children, helping them move through the water.

Each child builds the strengths and skills suitable for them. For a child with autism, for example, “one of the biggest benefits (of Swim Strong) is being in a group with their peers,” Worthington said.

The class helps build strength for children with cerebral palsy and improves their ability to move and walk, she said.

Children with spina bifida are often born with weakness in their legs, but can learn in the class the best way to swim using mostly their arms.

“Swimming is a lifetime sport. It’s just figuring out how they’re going to do it,” Worthington said.

Candice Pertuis said her son Tristan, 11, who’s in the program is “getting more confident” in the water.

Tristan, who has cerebral palsy, also swims several times a week in his grandparents’ pool.

“He’s always been a fish — he can hold his breath forever,” Pertuis said of her son.

This summer’s Swim Strong session is now closed, but registration for next year’s will begin in April 2014. Worthington meets individually with each child that pre-registers to make sure the program is appropriate for them.

To pre-register, contact Reneé Belcher at (225) 924-8709 or email her at Renee.Belcher@womans.org.

The cost of Swim Strong, which meets once weekly during the summer for eight weeks, is $140. Business and community groups have donated scholarships for families with financial need.