Program Teaches Special Needs Kids To Swim, Surf

WILBUR-BY-THE-SEA, Fla. (AP) — In 2018, local high-schooler Nicole Grippa started volunteering to teach special needs children how to swim at the Ormond Family YMCA as part of a program she created called Chasing Dreams.

Four years later, Grippa, 22, is a college student at the University of Colorado–Boulder, but she comes home every summer to spend time with the kids she loves.

On Friday, Grippa, her sister Grace, 18, and members of the Port Orange YMCA took a group of about 15 kids to the Toronita Avenue Beach Park in Wilbur-by-the-Sea to teach them how to surf.

“They’re having a blast,” said Ginni Hiers, senior program director at the Port Orange YMCA, as she watched the kids in the water.

“Nicole and I came up with Chasing Dreams,” Hiers said. “Her passion was swimming and making everybody, no matter what your abilities are, be able to enjoy the water.”

The program is free for any family. It mostly involves swimming lessons for special needs children at the Port Orange YMCA pool.

“This year we added this beach part, and I’ve always wanted to do it,” Grippa said. “We’re excited about this.”

Friday’s lesson included children with Down syndrome, blindness, autism and cerebral palsy.

“We came from a family who really valued giving back and giving your time to people, spending time doing good and helping others,” she said.

Grippa’s cousin, Chase, learned to swim despite a physical disability. He served as the inspiration for the Chasing Dreams program, Grippa said.

“There’s not a ton of camps for people with special needs, so we really wanted to be that for them,” Grace Grippa said, adding that it is especially important for special needs children to learn water safety.

With drowning among the leading causes of death for children nationwide, providing kids with an activity that is both recreational and educational makes their experience with Chasing Dream all the more special.

“It’s terrible because that’s such a preventable issue,” Nicole Grippa said. “It’s really good that we can target that and also just kind of give them something fun.”

She added: “We really focus on helping develop skills. We help them figure out how they can communicate what they need even if that’s different than us, and I think that’s just giving them their independence, helping them build those skills, whether it’s in the water or out.”

She added that the most important part of the activity is “helping the kids grow as much as they can.”

“Because they are really capable of so much,” Grace Grippa added.

“And I think people underestimate them,” Nicole Grippa said. “We’re pushing them to their full abilities, because they’ve got them.”

This year marks the sixth Chasing Dreams summer camp Nicole Grippa has volunteered for. The program usually lasts between one to three weeks. She and her sister have also volunteered for the YMCA during their Christmas breaks.

Grace Grippa said that the most rewarding part of participating in these lessons is watching the kids go from being unable to swim to doing it on their own.

Nicole Grippa said her favorite part of Chasing Dreams is “forming those connections with the kids.”

“It’s not just a week-long thing,” Grippa said. “It’s something that they really do remember, because when they run up to you the next summer, the next Christmas, they say ‘Ms. Nicole!’ I really feel like a part of their life and they’ve always felt like a part of mine.”

She added: “Some of these kids have been there since our second camp. We’ve created a community at the Port Orange YMCA.”

‘I wish I could duplicate the girls’ passion’

Katie Lyle, chief operating officer for YMCA in Volusia County, was also part of Friday’s camp. Lyle oversees all seven YMCA locations in the county.

“It’s really inspiring,” Lyle said about seeing Nicole and Grace Grippa volunteering for the children. “I wish I could duplicate them across the association.”

She said that the need for these types of camp programs countywide continues to grow.

“So many more families need this kind of camp,” she said. “And in our day camps, we just can’t always accommodate, because we don’t have that one-on-one care. I really wish I could duplicate the girls’ passion and put it across the county, because we need it — we desperately need it.”

Lyle said that the YMCA has struggled all summer to find enough staff to work “regular everyday jobs,” like front desk receptionists, fitness center instructors and lifeguards.

“We have pages of open positions,” she said. “And these girls are volunteering to come do this — this what they want to do. It’s truly inspiring.”

Lyle added that there are some kids who come from surrounding counties where programs like Chasing Dreams don’t exist.

“It’s impressive. These girls are impressive with what they’ve done,” Lyle said.

In addition to financial donations, Lyle said that volunteering is one of the most valued forms of help the YMCA can get from the community.

“If more people knew what the YMCA is doing, I think more people would jump in and help,” she said.

The plan, Grippa said, is to continue with Chasing Dreams and help “as many kids as possible.”

“This is definitely a priority for me,” she said. “This is where we were raised and where we love to do it. It’s about what you can do for others. It’s our little thing that we can do to make the world a better place.”