Katie, a contagiously bubbly 21-year-old, started her first day of work on October 5th in 2013. As she slid into the water in her brand new ‘swim instructor’ uniform and arms full of kick-boards and sign-in forms, she was trying not to let anyone see how nervous she was. Katie was a Veterinary Technician major at NDSU who signed up to be an Adaptive Swimming Lesson Instructor at the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties in order to pay off her school loans and get experience working with people. The Adaptive Swimming Program is a special initiative at the YMCA to teach and engage children with physical, mental and developmental disabilities. Not only was she nervous, but she was in a really painful time, with the loss of a family member who had recently passed away.
Little did she know that a wide-eyed, freckly 11-year old was tip-toeing his way down the pool deck toward her with his mom and dad for his first-ever YMCA swimming lesson. Isaac’s parents signed him up for lessons to gain confidence around water and learn safety skills. He was just as nervous as Katie. Even more. Isaac has autism and was frightened around water. But more importantly – he had courage to jump in the pool that day.
Katie worked with Isaac every week. Within two weeks, he no longer tip-toed nervously to the pool ladder to meet Katie. Within six months, he was dunking his head under water and started kicking with a kickboard the full length of the pool. Isaac stretched himself in more ways than ever, because he wanted to prove to Katie and his parents that he could swim on his own. Katie and Isaac were just what each other needed. They set goals for each other and conquered fears together. To Isaac, Katie was a mentor – someone who brought him out of his shell, taught him how to interact with other swimmers in the pool, and be confident. Her friendship with him made him understand that she truly cares about his success. To Katie, Isaac was the best part of her day. He made her appreciate each day and truly look forward to work.
Within two years, Isaac was swimming on his own. Though Katie moved out of Fargo for a full-time vet tech job, she still subs for shifts in the pool in order to see Isaac. Last year, she cheered him on from the bleachers as he competed in the Special Olympics Swim Meet and won three ribbons, one of which was for first place in the back-stroke.
The two have become best buddies. Katie was so much more than a swim instructor to Isaac, and Isaac was so much than a part-time job to her. Despite their disabilities, difficulties and any other differences they had that brought them together on their first day, they found something in common: Friendship. They supported each other and discovered each other’s greatness.
‘The Y saved me’ Katie said, ‘at a really difficult time in my life. My team became my family.’ The YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties is a place where miraculous stories happen every single day. We are more than just basketball gyms and swimming pools. We are more than Zumba and tumbling, locker rooms and classrooms. We are founded on the idea that in healthy environments, people – like Katie and Isaac – change and grow. From exercise to education, treadmills to teamwork, and preschool and prevention – we don’t just strengthen bodies. We strengthen minds and inspire spirits. The YMCA is so much more than a gym. We are a cause – dedicated to youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. We save lives.
From tip-toeing into the pool on that first day to a shiny first-place ribbon, Katie and Isaac have been forever changed.