Med students make waves with kids

Program helps children with developmental disabilities get physically active

Dal medicine student Kelly Flemming and four-year-old T’onia Thompson have fun in the pool. Photo: Kaitie Unwin
Dal medicine student Kelly Flemming and four-year-old T’onia Thompson have fun in the pool. Photo: Kaitie Unwinv

It’s Sunday morning at Halifax’s Centennial Pool. The sound of laughter and splashing echoes through the room. The pool is filled with smiling, excited young faces and a group of Dalhousie University medical students.

Since January 2010 students have been volunteering to swim with children who have varying developmental disorders in a program called Making Waves.

The goal is to promote physical activity through a fun, positive atmosphere for children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy.

The program started at McGill University in Montreal and has since been launched in several Canadian cities. After volunteering with the program at McGill and seeing its success, fourth-year medicine student Kyle Jewer co-founded the Making Waves program in Halifax.

“I can’t believe how easy it has been to get people to come out and volunteer,” he says.

When the program began in Halifax almost three years ago, only about 20 kids and the same number of volunteers took part. There are now more than 50 volunteers and over 80 children are signed up.

The children involved are given an “opportunity to get used to being comfortable in the water,” says Jewer. If not for the program, he says, many of these children “would have to do private swimming lessons, which is very expensive.”

Co- coordinators of Making Waves Eileen Roach, left, Asha Bienkowski and Brian Crouse pose with their swimming buddy Hailey MacDonald. Photo: Kaitie Unwin
Co- coordinators of Making Waves Eileen Roach, left, Asha Bienkowski and Brian Crouse pose with their swimming buddy Hailey MacDonald. Photo: Kaitie Unwin

This semester it cost about $20 for a child to take part, which covers the cost of running the program. The fee allows a child to attend one half-hour session every Sunday the program runs.

Besides the physical benefits Making Waves provides, Jewer says “lots of kids (attend) for social purposes as well – it’s good for them to get away from mom and dad for a while.”

For some kids, such as newcomer T’onia Thompson, this isn’t always something that comes easily. T’onia is four years old and has cerebral palsy. Though she is non-verbal, her mother, Tanya, says “it’s not hard to tell when she’s happy and when she’s not.” Every week when T’onia is told she is going to the pool, her mother can tell she is excited.

Not only does T’onia love the water, she also has a special bond with her instructor, Kelly Flemming.

“T’onia doesn’t usually go to a lot of people – so it was really good to see her do that,” her mother says.

Second-year student James Gould says that last week his Making Waves buddy, Connor, “was having such a good time he didn’t want to get out of the pool.”

The popularity of the program and the enthusiasm of its participants suggest Dal medical students aren’t just making waves in the pool – they’re making a difference in the community.