As a nation surrounded by water, swimming and aquatic fun are virtually a kiwi rite of passage. At YMCA Auckland, we believe that anyone can swim, and for the last two years Helen Vann has been on a mission to prove it.

Helen is based at Lagoon Leisure & Fitness managed by YMCA, and teaches the Abilities Preschool programme, which is a class for children who have disabilities. It’s specifically catered to children who aren’t able to enter mainstream swimming classes, or who would benefit from a programme that can cater to their individual needs.

Classes are open to anyone with a disability, be it intellectual or physical. “I’ve had all kinds of students,” says Helen. “I find that they can have a variety of syndromes and conditions.”

Helen plans each class but is aware that it’s never possible to adhere to it too strictly, so she keeps each session flexible and adaptable to the abilities of the people she is working with. She explains that “sometimes individuals aren’t able to come because they’re sick or they’ve got an appointment scheduled for that time, so then they miss a session or two. Essentially I run a group class that’s for individuals and takes everybody’s different levels into account. Someone might have learnt to float, while another person might need to focus on jumping in the water.”

While there’s a whole scope of activities, games, and equipment that Helen uses, what’s really important is that people have an opportunity to socialise and learn through play. The children can choose what kind of games they like to play; in the last lessons in December, for example, they chose to sing Christmas carols while playing in the pool.

Being in the pool is an effective form of physical therapy for many, because it allows the swimmer’s muscles to relax, and in doing so, gain more movement. Many physiotherapists suggest that their clients take the Abilities Swim programme and some have even come along and joined in so that they can learn more about it, help their patients in the pool, and even give Helen some extra pointers!

Over the last two years, Helen has helped several children who weren’t able to walk learn to do just that in the pool. As a result of that increased mobility, they were then able to walk on land, which is a pretty astounding achievement.

One of the most rewarding cases that Helen can remember is a pair of twins that she taught. “One of the twins had some developmental delay, while the other was physically fine. After tutoring them, both were brought up to a good level of swimming ability. The twins entered mainstream swimming classes together, and it’s really rewarding to know that they’re now able to take classes together, and that they’re essentially at the same level as each other.”

Helen believes that the Abilities Swim programme upholds YMCA Auckland’s values around caring for the whole community, in encouraging everybody to take part and feel included in aquatic play, whatever their abilities.