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Youths partner with disabled children for life-changing swimming lessons

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 10:56 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At the Oxford Athletic Club in Pine, Kelsey Smith, 19, plays with Katie McDonald, 6, in the swimming pool, Saturday, January 4, 2014.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At the Oxford Athletic Club in Pine, middle and high school students work with disabled children in the swimming pool, Saturday, January 4, 2014.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At the Oxford Athletic Club in Pine, Kelsey Smith, 19, holds Katie McDonald, 6, as Eben Krigger, 15, makes her laugh by squirting water, Saturday, January 4, 2014.

Grace Deeter has experienced her share of physical challenges with Down syndrome.

The Franklin Park 11-year-old didn't walk until she was 2½ years old, said her mother, Mary Deeter. She still can't ride a bike without training wheels.

But what she can do — and do better than many children without disabilities — is swim, thanks to the swimming lessons that she has been receiving from teen volunteers in Oxford Athletic Club in Pine since she was 3.

“The fact that she can swim is an accomplishment,” said Mary Deeter, 43.

Grace is among 15 children with disabilities who take swimming lessons from teen and young adult volunteers at Oxford, said Nina Novak, an adaptive aquatics instructor and the club's swimming lesson coordinator.

Novak has run the adaptive swimming program at Oxford for 14 years; classes are taught on Saturday afternoons from September through April.

The class costs $50 for eight 45-minute sessions, she said.

Swimming can benefit the students by improving their muscle tone, lung capacity and coordination, she said.

“So it just depends upon their needs,” Novak said.

Most of the program's 30 young instructors are Novak's former swimming students, members of school swim teams or private swim clubs, and lifeguards, she said.

Two instructors are paired with each student.

“We hope to have the same face working with them,” Novak said.

A registered nurse who used to work in the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital, Novak said her love of children spurred her to start the adaptive aquatics class at Oxford.

“They get to feel better for themselves,” she said of her students. “There's no better feeling than helping the kids have fun and excel.”

McCandless residents Mason Gonzalez, 13, and Zach Shuckrow, 14, members of the Allegheny North Swim Club, are Grace's instructors.

Shuckrow, who started in September, was moved to do so because his 9-year-old sister, Abby, who is blind and has a severe form of epilepsy, used to be a student in the adaptive aquatics program.

“When the opportunity came for me to be an instructor, I was very happy to be able to do it,” he said.

Christine Gallo's daughter Selah, 10, has been taking swimming classes in the Oxford program for about five years, said Gallo, 41, of Beaver Falls.

Selah, who has Down syndrome, could swim when she started taking the classes, but she wasn't confident, Gallo said.

Today, Selah is a confident and adventurous swimmer, said Gallo, adding she appreciates the one-on-one interaction between students and instructors.

“We are really grateful for the young people who are willing to give their up their Saturdays, because it's not easy,” she said.

On Saturday, Selah, wearing a blue swimsuit with aqua, lime green and white accent stripes and straps, worked with her instructor, Claire Marik, 17, of McCandless.

“Ms. Claire helps me. … I like the backstroke,” Selah said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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