STRIDE is an adaptive sports nonprofit program that provides over 8,000 adaptive sport and recreation lessons from ages 7-21 each year to people with physical and developmental disabilities. STRIDE educates and empowers people with special needs to help them sustain healthy, active, and fun lifestyles.
As a swimmer for the Guilderland Cyclones, I personally got the opportunity to swim in a STRIDE meet at the East Greenbush YMCA.
In the beginning of the meet, the competitive swimmers got to swim with the STRIDE swimmers. The purpose of the meet was to give the STRIDE swimmers a sense of competition and for them to see what it is like to be a competitive swimmer. In the meet, I swam the 25-yard freestyle and the 25-yard breaststroke against the kids in STRIDE.
The experience was so memorable. The STRIDE swimmers were so happy that they got to compete, and I was delighted that I got to participate in a swim meet that made others happy.
As a result of it being such a rewarding experience, I volunteered one Sunday at the swimming sessions that STRIDE provides for the kids with disabilities. The sessions were divided into two: Each session was only one hour.
The first session was for the kids who were more familiar with swimming and had good technique in their strokes. The kids were split up into lanes - there was about six in each lane - and I was assigned to lane two. In the lane, we worked with kickboards and kicking on your back.
What I found most common with the kids is that many of them could not straighten their legs while kicking with the board because of their disability. The kids in the first session loved the last 10 minutes because it was the time they got to jump and make big splashes into the water.
The second session was for the kids who were really not familiar with swimming so they were not divided up into lanes. I worked individually with a child who was 11 years old. He was not very experienced in swimming, so we did wall kicks and played with toys. He was such a sweet kid, and he got nervous a lot so he would hold onto me and put his feet onto my legs.
It was so rewarding to be able to work with children who to work who did have disabilities because I was able to teach them about swimming and make them feel happy and confident.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Mary Ellen Whitney, who has been the CEO and founder of STRIDE for 31 years. She explained to me that it was not intentional for her to found STRIDE. She was an adaptive sports teacher for BOCES before founding STRIDE. She said that she saw quite a few public schools that were not really providing sports programs for kids with disabilities because they are isolated and not very welcomed into sports programs.
So after school she and a couple of her friends taught kids how ski in 1985. Year after year it started to blossom with having more volunteers wanting to teach kids how to ski. She then created a business plan and applied for a nonprofit license out of necessity She finds most common with the kids that come to STRIDE meet their needs with finding a sport that they love and want to do.
She loves that they want to participate in STRIDE programs because she said public schools isolate the kids with disabilities therefore many of them are not invited to proms, school dances, or even sports programs.
STRIDE has expanded year after year with more volunteers and there is 18 different sports in 28 locations in three states.
Having the opportunity to swim in the STRIDE swim meet and volunteer was a very rewarding experience for me. It allowed me to see kids with disabilities having a great and rewarding time taking part in a sport that they absolutely love, and I share that love with them.
At the end of the day I’ve learned that it’s not about me and what I have accomplished as a swimmer, but it’s reaching back to the kids with disabilities and pulling them forward to increase their confidence and self-esteem as they get become better athletes. The friendships I am creating with them — well that’s just a whole different story.