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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 7:42 pm | Fair 55º


Leaving Wheelchairs Behind, Youths Float Free — and Joyfully — at Adaptive Sports Camp

To delight of 35 happy campers, Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation pools resources to let kids experience athletics

Hannah Martinez, 11, and Wheelchair Sports Camp volunteer coordinator Leslie Lannan enjoy the pool at UC Santa Barbara’s Rec Center. “We have campers who only get to swim this one week,” Lannan says. “Some of the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen come from the pool.” Click to view larger
Hannah Martinez, 11, and Wheelchair Sports Camp volunteer coordinator Leslie Lannan enjoy the pool at UC Santa Barbara’s Rec Center. “We have campers who only get to swim this one week,” Lannan says. “Some of the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen come from the pool.” (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

One by one, young children and teenagers rolled up to the edge of the UC Santa Barbara Rec Center’s pool on Friday, looked out at the enticing blue of the water and decided to take a dip.

Instead of doing a cannonball or backflip, each child was carefully placed in a special waterproof wheelchair and taken down a sloping ramp into the pool.

The joy was unmistakable as the kids were helped out of the chairs and into the water by the arms of a volunteer assigned to each one.

The youths basked in the weightless freedom of the water, as their wheelchairs and power chairs were lined up, abandoned at the edge of the pool.

The daily pool time was a favorite for campers at the week-long Wheelchair Sports Camp, sponsored by the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, which invited children 6 to 19 who are wheelchair bound to experience the joys of sport.

Thirty-five campers and 60 volunteers took part in the camp last week, which is in its 30th year of operation.

The campers are exposed to a myriad of sports activities, including rock climbing on the gym’s 30-foot climbing wall. Each of the sports is adapted in ways that allow them to participate in their wheelchairs or power chairs.

Friday was the last day of camp, and a special day since it was the only time that the campers were able to experience scuba sessions in the pool.

Scuba masks and air tanks were lined up at the pool side, and instructors helped the kids put on their gear before starting their underwater adventure.

The day before, the kids had taken part in adaptive kayaking, with specially outfitted kayaks that enabled them to travel across the pool’s surface.

Camp director Rene Van Hoorn said that the whole point of the program is to introduce the youths to activities they may not have tried before “so that they learn the possibilities and go out and do it.”

Many times, children with disabilities end up on the sidelines, and “we want to empower the kids and the parents,” she said.

All of the camp’s counselors and most of the instructors are wheelchair users themselves, and become living examples to the campers that they, too, can have a successful future.

Children attend the camp from the South Coast, Lompoc, Santa Maria, Oxnard and as far away as Bakersfield. Transportation is provided for the campers, all of their meals are donated and UCSB provides the use of its facilities for the week.

Volunteer and occupational therapist Mariana Desena was swimming in the pool Friday next to 12-year-old Mari Rangel, who was working up the courage to try the air tank and mouthpiece underwater.

Her face lit up with a smile as she surfaced.

Scuba instructor Sunny Clarkson was also nearby, coaching Mari as she got the hang of the regulator.

Clarkson, who has been volunteering with the camp for two decades, told Noozhawk that scuba day with the kids is “one of the best days of my year.”

“There’s so much freedom,”​ Desena said, adding that it means a lot to see the children enjoying the pleasure of being in the water.

“The whole camp is a confidence builder,” she said. “For many of them, it’s the first time in their lives they’re the majority.”

Eleven-year-old Hannah Martinez was joyfully paddling around the pool with help from Leslie Lannan, a camp volunteer coordinator and occupational therapist who has worked with Hannah each year at camp since she was 6.

Hannah, who has cerebral palsy, seemed at ease with herself and Lannan as she floated on the water, gazing up at the sky and then laughing as she righted herself, being pulled gently across the pool by Lannan.

In her leopard-print bathing suit, she told Lannan that “the water is my home.”

After Hannah was lifted out, Lannan said that being in the pool is an essential part of childhood that many children with disabilities don’t get to take advantage of.

“We have campers who only get to swim this one week,” she said. “Some of the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen come from the pool.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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