It’s Friday afternoon and 12-year-old Molly Birmingham is doing laps across the pool at the South Barrington Park District.
Under the careful eye of instructor Colleen Fear, Birmingham practices a number of different strokes, going back and forth, over and over.
If it weren’t for the pink walker sitting outside the pool beside her mother, Jenny, you wouldn’t guess Molly has any mobility issues by watching her swim. Molly has Hurler syndrome, also known as MPS, a genetic disorder affecting the metabolism that often requires a cord blood or bone marrow transplant to survive. For Molly, it has meant countless surgeries and problems moving on her own. Coming to swim with Fear every week allows her to move in ways she usually can’t on land.
Students like Molly are part of Fear’s specialty. As recreation supervisor at the South Barrington Park District, she works with people with special needs, ranging from people with conditions like Molly’s to a senior with arthritis.
As a result, she has become a critical feature in making difficult lives a little easier.
Fear arrived at the park district in 2001 when her daughter was 2, hoping to find a good place for swimming lessons. Fear had taught swimming since she was in high school, and was asked if she wanted to teach classes at the same time her daughter was at lessons.
“I’m like, ‘Great I’m going to be here anyhow,’ ” Fear said. “The joke of that was one hour a week became full time for me.”
She took over special needs classes when the former director left, and still devotes much of her time to the program. In a week where she had 13 private lessons, nine were for people with special needs.
She had training from the American Red Cross, and started taking classes through the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute. She uses her knowledge to bring a sense of normalcy to not only students, but their families.
“They are happy to see their kid being successful at something,” she said. “They have so many barriers and so many times that they find that their kid can’t participate with the group. On land it’s much harder. The water really gives them a lot of opportunities that they can’t duplicate anywhere else.”
People with physical disabilities have an easier time moving and relaxing in the pool because water eliminates some of the pull of gravity.
Jenny Birmingham, who drives Molly from Arlington Heights for lessons, said Fear is a blessing.
“She has been such a sense of support, for both of us actually,” Birmingham said. “She just has a gift of working with kids with special needs. It takes a lot of patience. It’s her innate ability and her love of children.”
Scarlett Sepe, 2, started lessons with Fear when she was 11 months old. Scarlett has spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive condition that affects all of her muscles. It’s difficult to strengthen them. When she’s in the pool with Fear, she is able to move.
“Colleen is very accepting of your child’s condition,” said Scarlett’s mother, Rachel Sepe, of Barrington. “It’s like it’s not a big deal.”
Rachel is happy to see her daughter doing something other children can do. Scarlett wears an inflatable ring around her neck to swim, since she lacks the muscle power to hold up her head — although Rachel noted her daughter’s neck is strengthen. Scarlett’s first time moving on her own happened in the pool
Fear uses a number of strategies to work with them, even if it requires some extra work.
“I find myself being challenged to find a way to get through to them,” she said.
One of the greatest tools she has discovered is treating her students like any other kid. She often recommends bringing special needs students into group classes, as seeing their peers’ accomplishments can create healthy competition.
“When they’re by themselves, the lawyer in them will argue all day long as to why they can’t,” she said. “But when everybody else around them is doing it, they’re like, ‘OK, I guess that’s what I’m doing.’”
This doesn’t mean leaving the special needs student alone. Fear stays with them in the pool, holding them for moves they might not yet have the ability to do.
For Molly, working with Fear has allowed her to excel at swimming and led to her gaining confidence. After her recent Friday lesson, she had to leave quickly to make it home in time for Molly to work the lighting board in her school’s performance of “The Secret Garden.”
And on that day, the 12-year-old, who wasn’t expected to see her 10th birthday, impresses her mom and teacher as she carefully climbs out of the pool, just like any other kid, all on her own.