With a major competition just months away and no practice pool, NKCH staff came to the aid of local swimmers by making the hospital’s lap pool available to them. The swimmers, ages 8-21, belong to Northstars, a group of specially-challenged competitive athletes. The situation was personal for several NKCH employees who are parents of Northstars swimmers.

As the group scrambled to find a practice facility, one NKCH mom, Kate, remembered the hospital’s lap pool. With one phone call to Jill Wyman, Community Health & Wellness, and some schedule rearranging, the Northstars now have a place for Saturday practices. “We are so grateful to the hospital for this wonderful pool, which is even handicap accessible,” Kate says.

North Star swimmers, Tim French and Pasha Hussain practice their strokes.Northstars is open to children and adults with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and other special challenges. They can participate in one of two programs: adaptive or swim team. Swimmers in the adaptive program require either a flotation device or a support person in the water. The swim team is for advanced swimmers who are more proficient in freestyle, back stroke, butterfly or breast stroke.

Swimming provides the athletes with many physical benefits, including improved muscle tone, flexibility and mobility. It also gives them the opportunity to learn how to socialize, compete and communicate.

“It’s really wonderful to see these young people tease each other, like teammates, and give high 5s,” Kate says. “It took time for them to get that spark, but it’s there.”

Northstars began in 2009. Since then, it has grown to include basketball, bowling and softball, with support from volunteers.

With a wonderful pool for practices and a skilled team of coaches and enthusiastic parents, 33 Northstars swimmers participated in the Special Olympics district competition in April, earning a total of 85 medals, including 71 gold. Fourteen swimmers will advance to the state competition on May 30 in Springfield.

The success these athletes enjoy extends beyond the pool or playing field. “Most of these kids aren’t very verbal, but you can see a change in their body language. They carry themselves differently and wear their medals for days,” says proud parent Kate.

The hospital offers a variety of pool classes that are open to the public.