Wild splashing and excited squeaks filled the relatively quiet YMCA pool area Monday, as Arthur Lile and Sue Nicklin played fetch.
Nearby, two of Arthur’s classmates floated peacefully in the water, assisted by school staff members. Their faces are a mix of peace and joy.
Each are members of the Complex Needs Classroom, an education environment set up specifically for students with medical complications that are too restrictive for most general education classrooms. These students are non-ambulatory and require extra care and assistance.
Currently, five students call the Complex Needs Classroom home and each are included in the weekly hydrotherapy session held Mondays. They range in age from 5 to 19, though the classroom itself is available to students ages 3 to 21.
“Hydrotherapy is incredibly good for kids that are impacted with any kind of disability and significantly more so for the kids that are super impacted,” said Nicklin, early childhood special education physical therapist with the Douglas Education Service District. “A lot of the time they don’t get out of their wheelchair a whole lot to do things. It’s lovely to be able to get them in the water because they can stretch out and they relax.”
The program began a few years ago, an idea offered up by special education teacher Pamela Schneider. It took about a year of collaboration to orchestrate, including getting school officials and parents on board, finding the space and staff to make it happen and the transportation to get them there.
Unfortunately, the program had to be paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a lot of foot work and negotiation, students were able to return to the water three weeks ago.
Part of that work included getting Arthur ready for their new adventure. For students with the most severe disabilities, new experiences can be too overwhelming to face. Arthur was rather afraid of this new concept, so classroom staff took it upon themselves to read Arthur stories and show him videos about swimming.
“For weeks this kid was hearing about swimming and we were still really nervous because he could have just really hated this. And then he got in and just loved it. It was so sweet to watch. He’s so happy in there,” Nicklin said.
You can literally see the weight come off their shoulders, according to special education coordinator Angela Keeran.
“We’re meeting some of their most basic needs,” Keeran said. “These kids are in wheelchairs. They don’t have a lot of their own motor control. Many of them are dealing with chronic pain issues. So we get them into the water and they get to stretch out and move their muscles that they can’t do normally in any other setting.”
The Complex Needs Classroom is operated by Douglas ESD but housed at Fir Grove Elementary School. It is open to all schools within the Douglas ESD service district. The classroom team consists of a special education teacher, licensed nurse practitioner and instructional assistants. A school nurse, physical therapist, occupational therapist, teacher for the visually impaired and speech therapist all work very closely with the classroom.
Many of these same people step up to make hydrotherapy happen each week for these special students.
“It’s very rewarding,” Keeran said. “And the staff all love it. They just are like ‘I can’t believe this is my job.’ You’ll see not just the kids with giant smiles, the staff will have giant smiles too.”