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To Belong, Part 2

Story and photos by Stephanie Kim.

I finally took the plunge. I invited my daughter’s classmate over to go to the neighborhood pool with us. That doesn’t sound like such a big deal for most, but for my daughter Julia and me, it was a very big deal.

To BelongJulia is an 11-year-old 5th grader with an intellectual disability. This past school year was the first time in many years that she was included with her typical peers in the general education classroom. And while her academic achievement continues to progress very slowly, she has had an amazing year surrounded by a great group of friends. It was in this classroom that she felt like she belonged and experienced the joy of being surrounded by friends.

julia-pool-250pxIt can be difficult for some to make new friends, but for those with disabilities, there are additional barriers. How can Julia be friends with kids who are reading Harry Potter and multiplying fractions when she can’t yet read, write, or count? Julia is often left playing alone because she can’t understand rules to games and lacks the strength and endurance to play sports. It is challenging to develop friendships when you can’t communicate effectively or share common interests. But I am determined to keep Julia from a life of isolation and loneliness, which some might say is a greater disability.

Julia loves the swimming pool and wanted to invite her friend from school. So I finally arranged it. While she can now get across the pool and feels very comfortable in the water, it took over a year of swim lessons for her to establish a healthy respect for the water, to learn to hold her breath, and to understand that the wall was the safe place. It took many more years before she would finally use both feet to kick, albeit rather ungracefully. She still doesn’t use her arms when she swims because then her feet stop kicking. But she can float and she can swim across the pool and she does know how to find the wall in the deep end.

To BelongMy original goal in her taking swim lessons was to keep her safe. What I didn’t realize is that learning to swim provided so much more, especially combined with all the new friends she made this year.

Julia and her friend swam and played in the pool together for hours and had a blast. As I watched them play, time just stopped. I realized all that money spent on years of swimming lessons and the many hours of driving across town to get her there each week finally paid off. Just for that one moment alone, it was worth it all. Being able to swim put her on a level playing field where she could finally just be a kid playing with a friend at the pool. That day, I had a glimpse of a hopeful future for Julia – a member of the community, included in the fun, surrounded by friends.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Richmond Times Dispatch on August 23, 2015.

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