Even three years later, the vivid memory of a little boy being wheeled into a city pool for therapy still very real to Little Fishies Swim School owner and instructor Jodi Powell. Miles had spinal muscular atrophy, and seeing her young student shiver in the water gave Powell the intuition to realize a better way. After planning and saving, Powell opened Special Fishies Aquatic Freedom Room last Friday in Lake Forest, a calming environment for children with disabilities. Here, a big hot tub lets children find their "aqua freedom" and strengthening under her guidance. "I knew I could give freedom that these kids can't feel anywhere else," she said. "I already fell in love with working with children on the spectrum, but this was something new."
Powell believes strongly that being in water is beneficial for everyone and plays a healing role for people with disabilities. Parents who take their kids to her for sessions say they've seen a marked improvement in their child's behavior, coping skills, and mobility.
"My younger son has a rare disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which causes muscle weakening," said parent Nikki McIntosh. "Due to his disease, he is unable to stand and walk on his own. Swim school therapy is a huge asset for him."
The Aquatic Freedom Room not only teaches children to swim, but Powell performs special exercises for those with mobility disabilities, working their arms and legs to increase body fluency. This work also helps burn fat (people with disabilities tend to be overweight because of a lack of exercise) and build muscle. "I put light weights on their legs, we get a barbell and we can do some walking," she said. "I get kids to swim, that can't walk, giving them a freedom they never experienced before...Once we get these little guys moving, we keep them moving."
Though she's willing to teach anyone how to swim and be safe in the water, Powell's school is now geared towards these children, with a target age of around five or six. "There really isn't an age," Powell said. "But because it's going to help in their healing process and journey, it's better to start young, the younger the better."
Powell has a BA in psychology from Southern Illinois University and has over 15 years of experience as a certified lifeguard. She originally planned to be a therapist, but the passing of her father from multiple sclerosis inspired her to work with special-needs children. While living in Arizona, continuously hearing about children drowning in swimming pools on local news broadcasts led her to create a program that taught children affordable swim lessons and pool safety in their own homes.
She started her lessons for special-needs children in San Clemente shortly after moving to OC in 2006, where she still holds regular and special-needs classes at an outdoor city pool. But the love of being with children in water came when she was on her high school's swim team; it was a requirement to teach children how to swim, and she immediately loved it.
Though enjoying her San Clemente sessions, Powell realized a private room would create a different environment. The quiet, indoor atmosphere lets clients relax and focus better; the warmth of the hot tub is better on bodies than a cold, outdoor pool.
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"I needed a controlled environment to help all, from children with sensory processing disorder to cerebral palsy,"she said. "My dream was to create a space in which I could control the temperature of the water, air, lighting and sound for everyone to feel safe to learn and relax."
Powell wants to expand Special Fishies beyond just the Aqua Freedom room. Starting in 2017, Community Autism Now, a non-profit which Powell now heads, will begin doing business as Special Fishies Aquatic Freedom and Education. She wants CAN employees and volunteers to go into the community to train and teach special-needs awareness and education to swim schools and people. "It's a hard thing to learn and there are so many ways of learning," she says. The goal is to eventually offer scholarships for swim lessons. "May every special child find a love for and freedom in the water," Powell said. "Water is healing to all."