On-campus swimming program gives students the chance to work with kids with disabilities

The organization has logged over 12,000 volunteer hours since being founded in October 2013.


Over 200 students have volunteered over 12,000 hours of community service since the program was founded in 2013. Photo by Mohammed F Emran

Thomas Chiles, Contributing Writer

Every Monday night at 6:30, sounds of splashing and laughter can be heard emanating from the Aquatic Center, but it’s not the Florida Atlantic swim team.

The FAU Adapted Aquatics program meets at the Olympic-sized swimming pool on the FAU Boca Raton campus one night a week.

The volunteer organization, soon to be renamed Splash Pals Adapted Aquatics, is run by healthcare professional students for children with various disabilities. The program gives students the chance to have a direct impact on a child’s life while logging FAU volunteer hours and hands-on experience.

Program owners Justin Cooke and wife Jenna Goldsmith have created an environment in which both disabled children and college students can benefit and grow.

“It’s a program that helps connect college students with children with disabilities through aquatic activities and social interaction,” said Cooke. “Students learn about numerous disabilities and how to interact with those disabled individuals.”

The organization tends to assist children with developmental disabilities like cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism spectrum disorder and down syndrome.

“Currently we aren’t limited in the types of disabilities we can accommodate, as long as the children receive a physician’s clearance to participate,” Cooke said.

Current and pre-healthcare students are mentored by therapists, physicians and various FAU medical school professors to help them identify and learn how to interact with individuals with disabilities.

During a typical semester, about 30-40 students volunteer for the program. Since being founded in October 2013, over 200 students volunteered over 12,000 hours of community service.

Junior and psychology major Nicole Camacho has dedicated her Monday nights to volunteering for the program and says it is worth the lost free time.

“The kids are so carefree,” Camacho said. “It’s such a great experience. Even after a long day, once you see the kids you just can’t be upset.”

The student volunteers are doing much more than just logging some easy volunteer hours. The relationships they build with the children in the pool can be unforgettable.

Student volunteers from FAU Adapted Aquatics play with a disabled child at the Boca Raton campus Aquatic Center. Photo by Mohammed F Emran

Alexander Voitkov is a 25-year-old biomedical master’s student who joined the program in the beginning of the summer of 2016. His passion for volunteering propelled him to an officer position and earned him the title of Best Pals Coordinator.

Voitkov worked with a 13 year old named Jonathan, a teenager with quadriplegia and cerebral palsy.

As the first session began, Voitkov jumped in the pool and began to stretch Jonathan out.

“At first I was skeptical if he was understanding what was happening, if he knew what I was doing,” Voitkov said. “I first started with stretching, making him use his muscles best he can.”

Next, Voitkov helped Jonathan stand on his own two feet for the first time in the pool. Voitkov said that the raw emotion that Jonathan displayed was remarkable.

“He cracked up,” Voitkov recalled. “Tears were coming out of his eyes from how much he was laughing and enjoying his time.”

Voitkov also worked with a child named Jacob who had been diagnosed with autism.

On his first day attending a session, Jacob was overwhelmed by the splashing and commotion from the other children, which made him uneasy. When he got into the pool, he swam to the corner, closed his eyes and covered his ears.

“Jacob, my name is Alex [Voitkov], let’s go swim!” Jacob opened his eyes and saw Voitkov standing before him. “I’ll race you to the other side.”

Jacob accepted, which allowed for a strong bond between the two to eventually form.

During their swims together, Voitkov attempted to get Jacob to open up to him. It was a slow process, but Jacob began to trust Voitkov and became more vocal with each session.

Now when they meet, Jacob embraces Voitkov in the pool immediately. It is all smiles, laughs and love between the two.

“Just seeing the growth from someone who was too afraid to make eye contact to someone who is holding on to me and overcoming the challenges caused by autism,” Voitkov said. “That is why I think this is an awesome program.”

By early 2017, Cooke expects to open chapters at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the FAU Jupiter campus, Broward College in Davie and Florida International University in Miami. He and his wife are working toward turning the program into a nonprofit organization.

Pool sessions cost $15, with the money going directly toward liability insurance, pool rental and equipment fees. Volunteers participate in fundraising to help keep the costs low for participants.

To reserve a spot or to find out more information about the program, contact [email protected] or call 563-920-5049.

Thomas Chiles is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @thomas_iv.