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Creating A New Program

Vicki Keith helping

In April 2001, Vicki moved to Kingston, Ontario with her husband John Munro with the intention of developing sport and recreational programs for children with physical disabilities in an area that had very little to offer these kids. The eastern Ontario region was actually referred to as the "Black Hole" in sport for disabled by participants and organizations across the rest of the province.

Vicki decided that the best place to start, was with what she new best, and decided to develop a competitive swim team for children with physical disabilities and their able-bodied siblings.

To raise awareness for this goal, Vicki and her husband John decided that they would complete a 32-km tandem crossing of Lake Ontario. The successful swim helped raise some initial seed money to help develop these projects, but more importantly, it raised awareness. Vicki was contacted by a number of families who had children with disabilities who were looking for somewhere to participate. All that was needed now in order to get the program up and running was a facility.

The aquatics director at the Kingston Family YMCA contacted Vicki at this point and said, "We can't offer you money, but we would love to support you in some way. Could we offer you some pool time?"

With that offer, a swim team was born.

The swim team developed quickly to 7 swimmers. Now the team boasts over 30 swimmers. Many of the children joined the team as complete non-swimmers. Vicki ran private lessons for the new swimmers and coached the more advanced swimmers in the beginning lessons of competitive swimming.

Within two years, the Kingston Family YMCA had seen the amazing accomplishments of the children in this program, and agreed to support the development of this and other programs focused on the needs of children with physical disabilities and their able-bodied siblings. The swim team now became known as the Kingston Y Penguins Aquatic Club.

Vicki's husband John Munro watched the work that Vicki was doing, and the amazing accomplishments of the young people. He decided that he wanted to do something for these amazing children, so after a year of training, he set out with what he referred to as the Y Knot Marathon.

Y Knot Programs

Y Knot program participants

"Picture the smile on the face of a young boy who is asked to join a competitive sports team, when, up to this point in life, his disability has left him sitting on the sidelines on every playing field he has ever been on," says Vicki Keith. "The Kingston Y Penguins Aquatic Club was created to help find a place for children like this, to participate and belong."

As team member Jenna Lambert points out, being a part of the Kingston Y Penguins has "helped me build self confidence, leadership skills and much, much more. I have learned to develop a strong work ethic, independence, patience, focus on others and goal setting. The YMCA's programs have helped me to accept my disability. They have helped teach me that, just because I walk funny, that doesn't make me less of a human being. To me, this realization and the many other benefits that are associated with the YMCA programs, make my experience with them a life changing one."

Since the inception of sport for disabled programs at the Kingston Family YMCA, the young people participating have proved over and over again that because of their determination and dedication each and every one of them, will continue to accomplish what many people believe is impossible."

The programs are punctuated by the laughter and fun that seem to define every YMCA program. Yet, in the midst of the giggles lie important life lessons, which children learn through the conduit of athletics.

"Competitive sport teaches skills on how to live a successful, productive, happy life. It helps young people develop a strong work ethic, organizational skills, and the importance of teamwork," explains Vicki.

One of the most important aspects of the Kingston Y Penguins is that the young people who participate, are completely accepting of other children with physical differences and disabilities.

The team is a place where these children can immediately fit in. Their physical differences seem to disappear, and they are accepted for who they are. The Kingston Y Penguins is a safe place, where, these children have found a place to belong, and a chance to be a part of a team. Now, for the first time in many of their young lives, they are free to explore and focus on their abilities, not their disability.

In the 5 years the Kingston Y Penguins have been in existence, we have seen some spectacular results. Yes we have had 4 athletes achieve Provincial standards and 3 athletes achieve National standards, but those are not the most spectacular achievements we have seen.

The most spectacular achievements are those that to many who live in an able-bodied world might seem mundane, until they know the full story.

Michael went out to play - an everyday occurrence for most children, but until joining the Kingston Y Penguins, something that wasn't possible for Michael. Since joining the team, his confidence has grown, his physical ability has improved, and now it is not uncommon to see Michael giggling, and rough housing with his peers in the pool.

Brian swam a length of the pool. Brian was born with Duchene's Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that will slowly sap his strength, but in the pool he has freedom to move independently. As he finds walking harder and harder to do, and becomes more reliant on his wheelchair, his swimming is getting stronger, his confidence is growing, and he is seeing possibilities and not impossibilities.

Kaitlyn wrapped a towel around Chad's shoulders and sat with him to help keep him warm. A natural thing for a child to do, but if you are a child with a physical disability, you are usually perceived as the person in need of assistance. Seldom do these children have the opportunity to help others. On the Y Penguins, as in life, everybody has different abilities. The children often find opportunities to offer assistance. As the realization develops in these children that they have something to give to others, their confidence and self esteem begin to grow, and a compassion and understanding for others is cultivated.

Sisters Natalie and Jenna headed off to swim practice together. A normal occurrence in many families, but something that was not possible for families with children with physical disabilities in our area until the Kingston Y Penguins came into existence. Now Natalie and Jenna can train together, compete with each other and participate in an experience that will help them grow as sisters and friends. Swimming has become a passion that Natalie and Jenna share. It is something that has brought them closer, and allowed them to develop a healthy level of respect and admiration for each others abilities.

Eva ran a 1500 meter race at school. An admiral achievement for any 11 year old child! When Eva was born she weighed under a pound, and the doctors didn't believe that she would be able to survive outside of the hospital environment. They explained to Eva's parents that she would always be dependent and would be restricted to a wheelchair for mobility. Her parents believe that a major part of her success in developing independence, as well as her physical improvements is due to her participation on the Y Penguins.

When a child joins a sports team we know that as well as developing the skills and strategies of the game, that they will develop many life skills. This is doubly true for children with disabilities. No matter how positive and supportive the parents are, a child with a physical disability will always be aware that they are unable to do certain things that able-bodied children can do.

Take for instance one day the spring of 2001 when Eva's mom Lorie, walked into Eva's room to find Eva sitting on the floor crying, and pounding her legs as hard as she could with her fists. She looked up at her mom with tears streaming down her face and said "I just can't make my legs do what I want them to do. Why won't they work for me?" Her mother's heart ached as she searched for the answer that might heal her daughter's pain. Thankfully that was the same time that Vicki was developing the Y Penguins at the Kingston Family YMCA.

Eva joined the team, learned how to swim, and is one of our athletes who is learning about her abilities. Every athlete on the Kingston Y Penguins has an amazing story, each one has achieved new heights and are continuing to strive. So many of our athletes have achieved beyond their families wildest dreams, and they are just at the beginning of their journey. I think a quote from Eva as she jumped into the pool for the very first time embraces the attitude of each and every athlete as they continue to strive and succeed. "Watch out, here I come."

The Y Penguins slogan is Penguins Can Fly. We believe nothing is impossible, and we know that this is true, because day after day, at the Kingston Family YMCA these children are making what others deem impossible, possible.