Rambler Newspapers

Serving Irving, Coppell and Grand Prairie

Aquatics center pilots disability program for kids

The Heritage Aquatic Center in Irving started 2016 with an exciting new program, one organized specifically for special needs children under the age of eighteen. Aqua Stars is an ongoing project meant to give these children and their families a quiet day of swimming once a month during a time when the Aquatic Center is closed to the general public. The first of these events took place Sunday, Jan. 10.

“Our Aqua Stars pilot is an outreach to the exceptional needs community in Irving and our neighboring communities as well, so there’s no limitation on geography,” Lynn Harper, Aquatics Supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department of Irving, said.

“We’ve talked about how we could better serve our exceptional needs community in Parks and Recreation for as long as I have been in this position, which has been almost two years now. It’s a hard community to figure out the right programs, the right day, and really how to reach it. So we’ve kicked things around.

“Aquatics is a really good venue. We had a citizen who came to us, and the citizen has an exceptional needs child. She was really interested in having access to swimming at a time when there wasn’t as much chaos as there is during a normal, open swim time,” she said.

“Elvia Espino was the citizen, and she’s been instrumental in kind of leading and guiding this program. We’re really proud to offer it. This is the first day, and I’m really happy that we have five or six families out here having a good time. It’s not just for the kids who have exceptional needs, it’s also for their families. A lot of times when a family has an exceptional needs member it’s hard to find an activity that they can all do together. Swimming is definitely one that they can all participate in.

“I hope that maybe in February the entire pool is pretty much covered in people ready to have fun. As you can see, we have at least a dozen folks out there, they’re all being active, having fun, multigenerational, and that’s what it’s all about here in Irving.”

Also attending the event was Ray Cerda, director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Irving.

“This is of course open to family members and caregivers for our special needs population,” Cerda said. “We hope to have 20 or 30 kids in this program. For the summer, we’re actually going to go out to our Irving West Aquatic Facility, so I think that is actually going to open things up bigger than they are here today.”

Elvia Espino, the parent who helped start the Aqua Stars program, shared her thoughts on why such events are important to her, her son, and the special needs community as a whole.

“My son is six years old, and he has Autism Spectrum Disorder with cognitive delay and speech delay,” Espino said. “He loves to swim. It just seemed like a no brainer that with all the amenities the City of Irving has that we should be able to do something for our kids to keep them occupied during the winter.

“I went to City Council, I presented with Ray Cerda, so they’ve gone above and beyond. While this is a pilot program, I believe we’re on our way to creating an innovative approach for other cities to follow. People need to understand that children don’t necessarily look like they have a disability. People just need to be a little more open minded and embrace people,” she said.

Espino hopes the program serves as an avenue for other children to spend time with disabled children, an activity that could greatly benefit everyone involved.

“I think it’s worthwhile that even though your children aren’t physically or mentally disabled, they bring their children, so they learn to socialize with other children who have autism, or ADHD, or other issues. I think it’s a great opportunity to get their kids involved, so they can learn to be friends and be nice and accepting of other people who aren’t like them.”

Dates for upcoming Aqua Star events are Feb. 14, March 13, April 10, and May 15. For those interested in attending these events, a parent or legal caretaker or guardian over the age of 18 must accompany children. General pool admission fees still apply.