Zumba, Swimming & So Much More
Last fall, Rachael Gnias ’12 approached Bob Durkin with an offer hard to refuse: free swim lessons for his son and his friends in preparation for the Special Olympics season.
As president of Phi Epsilon Kappa, the University’s exercise science honor society, Gnias knew plenty of students looking to make a difference. Durkin, whose 19-year-old son, Kevin, has Down syndrome, was the perfect person to ask because his family is regularly involved in recreational activities with other area adolescents with special needs.
Durkin loved the idea, but there was one hiccup – Special Olympics swimming events are held in the spring, a few months away.
Gnias thought for a moment and suggested that the honor society could host Zumba classes for the fall. But Durkin was hesitant at first. “What is a Zumba?” he asked curiously.
Within weeks, Phi Epsilon Kappa members were leading the fitness dance program on campus, busting a move twice a month.
Durkin was awestruck at how well the University students related with his son and the other special needs participants.
“The University students had an innate empathy and capacity for connecting with the young men and women participating,” he says. “It would be easy to be intimidated, if you don’t understand the nature of the disabilities involved, but these students weren’t.”
“This is something we just wanted to do,” says Gnias. “The zumba classes were lots of fun and fit easily into students’ schedules. It was a huge success. The students really enjoyed participating.”
The following semester, Phi Epsilon Kappa – led by its officers Antonietta Bruno ’12, Anahita Saadat ’12, Katie McAllister ’12 and Gnias – enlisted the services of University swim team members to help provide instruction for the spring semester swim practices.
The two-hour practices ran weekly on Sunday afternoons from March through May in the Byron Recreation Complex. Most days somewhere between six and 12 swimmers – of all abilities – hit the pool for one-on-one instruction. Some practices’ attendance was even higher and there were two students for every Special Olympics swimmer, Durkin points out.
“The University’s students were so committed,” he says. “You can’t help but think they might have something better to do on a Sunday afternoon. But they were there every week for us, and the kids loved it.”
“The children gravitate to the students,” added Joe Paladino, a parent of a participant. “Learning from their peers is a different opportunity for the children.”
Jean Sandberg, who organized the Special Olympics training program with the honors society, said the University students were “terrific with the children; showing patience, genuine care, encouragement and instruction.”
McAllister feels the swimming lessons were just as worthwhile for her and her fellow students.
“This project let me learn, have some fun and help in the community,” she says. “Working with the children has been a great experience. They have a special place in my heart.”