Special needs shouldn’t prevent someone from learning to swim. The YMCA of South Palm Beach County’s Adaptive Swim Instruction program customizes lessons for water safety for every ability.

Being comfortable and capable around water is something every parent wants for their child, especially living in South Florida where water activities are a year-round part of life. Rebecca and Gavin Hurn of Boynton Beach were particularly invested in getting their 3-year-old son Gregor swimming.

Because of complications during his birth, Gregor has challenges that other preschoolers don’t. “When you hold a child on their back in the water, they should be relaxed,” Rebecca explains. “Gregor is missing some of those natural traits. We knew it was important to get him to swim, but we didn’t know how to handle his special needs.”

The Hurns searched for a program that could handle their son’s unique circumstances without luck. Then, they made an acquaintance with someone whose son with autism had used the adaptive swim instruction program at the DeVos-Blum YMCA in Boynton Beach and suggested they check it out.

Jeffrey Burgazzoli, the lead adaptive swim instructor at the YMCA of South Palm Beach County, says that the goals for children with special needs are the same as children without them. “We want them to know how to safely enter the water, to be aware of depths, to have water safety awareness, and become acclimated to the water,” he explains, saying after these basics, focus can turn to kicks and strokes.

Gregor, who started swim instruction around 2 years old, wasn’t comfortable in the pool in the beginning, Rebecca says, but Burgazzoli took his time and helped her son realize his potential. “Gregor had a big fear of the water,” Burgazzoli says. “He has motor skill challenges and cognitive delays. My first goal was to make him comfortable.”

Burgazzoli uses tools such as toys, flotation noodles, kick boards, and goggles to help engage his students. He breaks down swim instruction milestones into small bites suited to each child’s individual needs, progressing from getting a face in the water, to an ear in the water, to kicking to reaching for the wall.

“Every small gain is a big accomplishment, and we celebrate that,” Burgazzoli says.

As fear subsided, Gregor’s enthusiasm for his time in the pool grew. Rebecca attributes that to Burgazzoli’s patience, persistence, and rotation of props to keep her son motivated. She says the adaptive swim instructors are continually researching new techniques and obtaining training to help as many kids as possible.

As Gregor has grown as a swimmer, Rebecca also says he’s become aware of group swim lessons happening in the pool at the same time as his individual lesson. “It’s a fun atmosphere,” Rebecca says. “I think he likes that he’s right next to kids who are in classes.”

Rebecca says she and her husband believe that starting in the program when Gregor was young means his memories around water will be positive, focused on his accomplishments and not the struggles and fears he once had.

“Every day he wants to go in the pool, and he loves it so much,” she says. “I think whether it be the adaptive or any swim program, it’s important to get kids involved as soon as possible. It’s vital for the safety of our children.”

Story written by Kelley Marcellus.