Kaleigh Cole is a senior at North Attleboro High School. She is a varsity field hockey and lacrosse player and hopes to study occupational therapy at the University of New Hampshire next fall.
“My life was changed by an eleven-year-old girl named Julie. I had been teaching swim lessons as part of the integration program the YMCA when I first met her in January 2016. Julie had a nonverbal form of autism and when we first started lessons she was a very remedial swimmer. Although she did not speak to me, on the first day I met Julie her eyes were smiling bright with hope and I became very eager to work with her.
“At the beginning of each lesson, Julie was always resistant to jump into the pool. I would guide her onto the edge of the deck and gently lift her into the water. She wore the thickest swim bubble the YMCA offered and was still unable to float without my guidance. However, as the weeks passed, Julie and I started to connect. She began to not only trust me but also to trust herself. Before I knew it, Julie had shed her bubble entirely and she began using only a noodle for support. She progressed from sitting and sliding into the pool to jumping from the edge and into my arms.
“On her last lesson, Julie’s father asked if I could have her try to swim without the noodle. Initially, I was hesitant to agree to his request as I was concerned I would be pushing Julie beyond her capability. However, when I asked Julie if she would feel comfortable swimming without a noodle she replied with a confident nod. I was anxious when we started the lesson with free swim and began to make our way towards the deep end. When my toes could no longer touch the bottom of the pool, I silently cheered as I watched Julie tread water by herself. When we practiced jumping, I helped her to the side of the pool and admired Julie’s bravery as she independently jumped into the water. Finally, when we moved to the shallow end to work on kicking, a skill Julie had struggled with over the past few weeks, she had a breakthrough. Instead of unenthusiastically flopping her legs about the way she normally did, Julie kicked her feet up and down in powerful strokes. A smile crept across her face as Julie spoke to me for the very first time. ‘You proud of me?’ she exclaimed. I vigorously nodded in response as my eyes began to swell with tears. However, it was a feeling beyond pride I felt that day. I was empowered. I had touched another person’s life and that was truly the greatest feeling I have ever known.”