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Making waves, building skills

Children with developmental or physical challenges dive proudly into the pool under the watchful eyes of their beaming teachers—McGill student volunteers who have been giving them weekly swimming lessons.

“We wanted to eliminate the obstacles that prevent special-needs kids from learning to swim,” says Matthew Morantz, a McGill graduate student who is president of Making Waves, a student-run non-profit created in 2005.

Personal instruction is often indispensable for children with special needs, but many parents don't have the means to pay for a private swimming instructor. In Canada, 26% of special-needs children live in low-income families. In Montreal, a set of nine private lessons at a municipal pool costs around $350. Making Waves offers nine private lessons for a very reasonable $20.

Making Waves lessons are offered to economically disadvantaged children with developmental and/or physical disabilities. The lessons require no prior swimming experience and are open to children who fear the water. The individualized instruction gives them a chance to build skill and confidence in a supportive environment.

“Some kids come into the program literally running away from the pool,” says Morantz. “By the end, they are usually the kids we have to hold back from jumping in. It’s really incredible to have a hand in making that happen.”  

In addition to giving participants something to be proud of, Making Waves is equipping them with a valuable life skill. “There are no two ways about it: Children with disabilities represent a disproportionately high percentage of drowning victims,” Morantz explains. “These kids need to learn the basic rules of water safety and the essentials of swimming.”

The children aren’t the only ones doing the learning in Making Waves, though. It is also a transformative experience for the volunteer instructors, who go through rigorous training and form lasting bonds with their pupils. “We’re giving university students a chance to prove themselves,” says Morantz. “By contributing in a sustainable way to the well-being of these children, they’re helping build a better society.”

The project truly has “made waves,” earning a prize in the 2009 Forces AVENIR provincial community involvement contest. During its first year, the McGill program offered instruction to five children. In fall 2010, the organization helped 50 participants, its current maximum. And thanks to an on-campus fundraising campaign, 75 kids are taking part in January 2011. The Making Waves model has reached other shores as well, with six Canadian chapters now established and projects underway as far afield as Lebanon and Mauritius.

Morantz is proud of the expansion, but dismissive about the commitment that he and the other student volunteers have made. “We don’t count the hours we put in, because we love it so much. It’s just a huge joy to be able to affect a child’s life in such a positive way.”

Making Waves sessions run September-December and January-April. For information on registering a child aged 3-15, please visit makingwavesmontreal.org.

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