Posted with permission from NJ.com
Tide Water Adaptive Aquatic Center (TWAAC) is an inclusive swim program created to fill the gap between able-bodied and special needs community in the pool. (Photos by Abby Lynn Photography) Tide Water Adaptive Aquatic Center (TWAAC) is an inclusive swim program created to fill the gap between able-bodied and special needs community in the pool. (Photos by Abby Lynn Photography)

WOODBURY -- Amanda Pope stood in her element, surrounded by the sound of splashing water and the smell of chlorine in the air.

She smiled as she watched, occasionally giving an instructional gesture to others in the pool.  She stood by the pool side, unable to remember a time before swimming, a time when she wasn't in the water or near it gearing up for a meet or about to dive into another practice. Things have changed since then.

She's no longer the focus of the competition, but she is training it. Through a partnership with the Riverwinds Community Center, Pope -- a 24-year-old from Woodbury -- started the Tide Water Adaptive Aquatics Center, a nonprofit, volunteer based swim school for special needs swimmers. TWAAC has a two-fold purpose -- training instructors to teach the lessons to accommodate the special needs community and provide a safe place for children with special needs to learn to swim.

"There's a disconnect between water safety and the special needs community so our goal is to help facilities become more inclusive and successfully integrate the special needs population into the swimming community," she said. 

"We want to foster a love and respect for the water in these kids and their families," Pope said. "The water is such an equalizing force and swimming is a lifelong activity. Whether they use it recreationally, for programs like this or to swim competitively, we want them to feel safe and prepared to be in the water."

The inspiration for the program came from years of family practice. Pope's mom, Nancy Curits, a coach for Tide Water Aquatics Club, Gloucester Catholic High School and Green-Fields Swim Club, taught swim lessons to special needs swimmers in the '80s. Pope took the reigns when she was just 15, teaching lessons to a neighbor's kid who had special needs. 

"We didn't see a reason why not to include kids with more extreme challenges. It was just a matter of figuring out how to do it correctly and safely, for the swimmers and instructors," Pope said. 

Kids are paired with instructors to work one-on-one learning the basics of swimming and water safety. The instructors, who must start by teaching typical lessons with all current Red Cross certifications before taking on the adaptive lessons, are specially trained through the center. 

"It's really cool to see [the instructors] grow, gaining both confidence and perspective," she said. "They start off kind of unsure teaching in the adaptive program, but by the end they know they're doing this great thing and they enjoy being there."

Sarah Jane Mee, a 16-year-old from Gibbstown, has been an adaptive lessons instructor with the center for just under a year. While she says sometimes she has to "dig deep" to find a little extra patience, it's no different working in the adaptive program than with typical kids she's worked with in the past. 

"Some kids don't listen as well, some kids you have to repeat things to multiple time, but kids are kids and all of the kids are really great," she said. "Whenever I have a bad day I can always look forward to coming to work and teaching these amazing kids. They always bring me out of my bad mood." 

Mee, who has swam competitively year-round for 10 years, knows the feeling of success in the water and says seeing the kids find that success is one of her favorite parts of working with them.

"I get to see them swim and do something new," she said. "They get so excited when they achieve something new in the water and it's cool to be part of that." 

This sense of achievement is shared by all those involved in the program, including the parents. Bethany Franz, a National Park native, started her four-year-old son Frankie in the program just about a year ago. 

"The lessons and program are made just for him," Franz said. "In school, they get their own learning plan and they get that same experience here. We sat down and talked about what we wanted Frankie to get out of this, his goals, and that's so personalized and important."

Frankie has Williams Syndrome, which is a chromosome deletion. According to Franz this could mean anything from developmental delays to heart conditions and kidney problems. For Frankie, one of the bigger obstacles in the water is coordination. While he does therapy outside of the program, Franz said swimming is really good for him because it challenges him and helps him exercise his gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

"He's blowing bubbles in the water, he lays on his back, he kicks, he paddles and will actually glide to the wall and catch it," she said. "He's not afraid of the water and that is just so important."

In order to tailor the program to specific needs of the children and create this personalized experience, Pope drew inspiration and knowledge from everywhere she could. 

"I'm never going to pretend to know everything about everything and I know things are constantly changing with research, so, as I developed all of these resources, I basically bothered people," she said. "I kept asking 'how do I do this better?' I talked to special education teachers, veteran swim coaches and instructors, behavioral aids, occupational therapists, anyone who I thought could give me expert advice based on their first-hand experience."

Tide Water Adaptive Aquatics Center has grown to include three locations -- Riverwinds, which has 45 swimmers, Cherry Hill which has 25, and a north Philadelphia location which has 20 swimmers. 

Pope hopes to grow the program further by having "inclusion heats" added to USA Swimming's monthly developmental meets. 

"USA Swimming is already working on becoming more inclusive. This would take it a step further," said Pope. "We want to provide more opportunity for the special needs community to compete." 

Pope's already taken the first steps towards inclusive competition by hosting the Inclusion Invitational, an inclusive swim meet. The meet was broken down by impairment -- cognitive, behavioral and gross motor skills.

"It was fair and equalized," she said. "I cried, the parents cried, it went very smoothly." 

The goal is to have two of these meets during the season, as well as fundraisers and additional water safety events to educate the community. 

"These kids deserve to have the same opportunities and it starts with education and practice," she said. "At the end of the day, these kids are kids. Everyone needs special accommodations at some point, everyone faces challenges, these kids just need a little more accommodation and face challenges that are on a greater scale, but they're still kids."

"They can do everything everyone else can. It just takes a little longer with a little more effort," she said. "But it's all possible and we're making things happen little by little." 

Caitlyn Stulpin may be reached at cstulpin@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @caitstulpin. Find NJ.com on Facebook.