By Brian Hagberg
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
On July 4, 2008, Marie Foster was celebrating the first time her new family was finally together at home. Her daughter, Morgan, had just spent nine days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after suffering an episode shortly after birth.
Finally able to get Morgan home, the Fosters were ready to begin life as a family. One phone call would drastically change their plans.
“We were getting ready for fireworks and so happy because we finally had her home,” said Foster, now a Staff Sergeant with the 11th Space Warning Squadron. “I get a call about noon and the doctor said Morgan’s got a genetic abnormality and gave us a very grim outlook to it.”
Their doctor explained that less than one percent of children born with this condition live past infancy, even less reach age three and it was a miracle Morgan was born at all. The Fosters knew Morgan was going to face some challenges because she’d been born with a cleft lip and palate. They weren’t prepared for her to struggle just to live.
“So Happy 4th of July,” Foster said. “Fireworks are going off and here we are wondering what’s happening.”
Almost seven years later, Morgan has defied the statistics and is the oldest of three children. She’s also enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program with the Air Force, and a recent grant through that program has given the Fosters, as well as 12 other EFMP families, the opportunity to give their children something most people take for granted, swimming lessons.
“We received a notification from the Air Force that they had money for camps for EFMP children,” said Cheryl Jensen, Airman and Family Readiness Center community readiness specialist. “I put in for it, and I just thought swimming is a life skill that children need. Every child needs to know how to be safe around the water.”
After researching various locations, Jensen decided to partner with Donna’s Dolphins, a small facility on the north side of Colorado Springs, because of their ability to provide one-on-one instruction and accommodate children with special needs.
“I started talking with Donna’s Dolphins and we talked about having a group lesson and I didn’t think that would be in the best interest of the children,” Jensen said. “They brought up the idea of one-on-one swimming lessons with the instructor focusing only on that child and I thought that would be perfect for our children with special needs.”
Danielle Newmaker, Donna’s Dolphins general manager, said being able to work with children with special needs is especially important to her family, her parents bought the company in 2014, because her younger sister has autism.
“Special needs are near and dear to my family’s heart because we had experience with it in our house,” she said. “We work with special needs a lot.”
The grant money was enough to provide each of the 13 families with five one-on-one lessons at Donna’s Dolphins. Newmaker said the primary focus during those five lessons will be on teaching the children how to be safe around the water and what to do should they accidentally fall in.
“Our whole program is the swim, float, swim philosophy,” Newmaker said. “We teach them all the basic safety necessities for being safe in and around the water. God forbid something happens and your child falls in the pool, they have the muscle memory to float on their back, yell for help or swim to safety.”
Newmaker said each instructor has gone through an intensive training process to teach them both proper techniques for working with various age groups as well as how to work with children with special needs. Additionally, their aquatics director is also a registered psychotherapist which allows the lessons to go beyond a typical swim instruction.
“What does it take for [special needs children] to mentally or emotionally click with swimming?” Newmaker said. “Our philosophy, especially with special needs, is we tailor our program to them, we don’t tailor them to our program. Not every kid is going to learn the same way and we have to figure out what it’s going to take for them to learn. We just work with them and see what they like and don’t like.”
Foster witnessed that philosophy the first time she took Morgan for a lesson. She told the instructor Morgan might have an issue wearing a swim cap and goggles during the lessons, and the instructor was willing to take things one step at a time to make sure Morgan was comfortable with everything.
“I didn’t have to explain that she was going to have issues getting splashed in the face, they just got it,” Foster said. “They’re very accommodating, very friendly, nice and very understanding.”
Megan DeYoung, whose son Jack recently completed the five lessons provided by the grant, has decided to continue taking him, and her daughter, to lessons because they were so successful.
“Jack loves swimming and I never thought I’d be able to say that,” DeYoung said. “He says, ‘I go to dolphin school,’ and it would’ve broken his heart if we stopped the lessons.”
The DeYoung family was stationed in Germany when Jack was born, and everything seemed just fine with him during his first two years, except that he couldn’t speak. At two years old, Jack’s pediatrician recommended the family see a developmental pediatrician. The developmental pediatrician diagnosed Jack with autism.
“We didn’t want to believe there was anything wrong,” DeYoung said. “We didn’t know what [the diagnosis] meant. We thought he’d never have friends, be able to speak or become a normal adult. It was devastating to hear.”
DeYoung said Jack’s diagnosis came during an already rough time for her family. Her daughter was three months and colicky at the time, and her husband was about to deploy. She said the diagnosis ended up bringing them to Schriever because of the wealth of services available in Colorado Springs through the EFMP.
She said the progress Jack has made through things like applied behavioral analysis therapy and the swim lessons has him on the verge of no longer requiring services, meaning he would technically no longer be diagnosed with autism. One of the reasons she said she wanted to continue his swim lessons was because of the bond he’s made with his instructor.
“Brian [Glickman, his instructor] is now one of Jack’s people, he’s bonded to him and he’s really connected,” DeYoung said.
Velnette Janes said her son Drake’s instructor was able to keep him focused on what was happening during the lesson. The one-on-one instruction and small size of the school provided a more conducive learning environment for Drake, who was diagnosed with ataxia and low muscle tone, than the large group lessons provided by places like the local YMCA.
“I have tried to do swim lessons in the past and that was a struggle because he just got really overwhelmed with all of the kids around,” Janes said. “[Donna’s Dolphins] was more hands-on, it’s one-on-one and Drake was really focused because the instructor was just talking straight to him. The instructor did a really great job.”
Janes said she thought swim lessons would be good for Drake for a number of different reasons. He does better with individual sports and the one-on-one instruction helps keep him focused, even when he gets fatigued.
“The swim lessons I thought would be perfect, and they really are,” Janes said. “It’s perfect for him and he loves the water.”
Newmaker said those connections are a big part of what Donna’s Dolphins is all about, and a loving, bubbly personality is something they look for in all their instructors.
“You have to love kids, have that bubbly personality and have a passion for kids,” she said. “We prefer that there’s some sort of swim background, but it’s easier to teach someone how to swim than it is to love kids.”
Jensen said she could see that mentality when she went to visit the school before making her final decision to team up with them.
“The instructor was focused on that one child and you could tell the child looked comfortable and looked like he was having fun,” Jensen said.
Newmaker said the goal of Donna’s Dolphins is for the community to know them as a place where anyone can go to learn to swim, especially those with special needs.
“If people know us for teaching special needs, that’s amazing and that’s our goal,” Newmaker said. “We’re here to help people. We’re here to make sure kids and adults are learning an essential life skill and we don’t turn anyone away. We just want them to have a fair shot.”
The lessons will provide the Fosters one less thing to worry about when they take their first ever family vacation in June — comfort in taking Morgan in and around swimming pools.
“We’re taking our first family vacation in June to California, which has nothing but pools everywhere,” Foster said. “Even if she’s not full-blown swimming by the middle of June I won’t have to go through the stranglehold around the neck, she’ll be comfortable. We want her to be safe in the water and comfortable in the water because we want our first family vacation to be awesome.”