When Connor talks about the medals and ribbons he has won for swimming, a big smile lights up his face. Competitions make him nervous, but “I’m happy and I love the cheering,” said Connor.

Born with Down syndrome, Connor started adaptive swim lessons when he was three years old at YMCA at Pabst Farms, a United Way-funded program partner in Oconomowoc.

“He was scared, just like any little kid,” said his mom, Brenda, “It took a while for him to get comfortable jumping in and putting his face in the water.”

The YMCA at Pabst Farms Adaptive Aquatics program provides swimming lessons to individuals of all ages, level of ability, and experience with water. United Way funds Special Programs at YMCA at Pabst Farms, ensuring everyone has access to programming like aquatics.

“The Y gives kids like Connor the opportunity to have new experiences and opportunities to make friends, to belong,” said Brenda. “Having different abilities, Connor doesn’t always get the chance to feel included with other kids.”

“United Way recognizes that inclusive opportunities like those offered by YMCA at Pabst Farms are critical in developing both physical and social skills for children of all abilities,” said Vickie Hay, health portfolio manager at United Way. “Connor’s story is a powerful example of what happens when people with different abilities are given the time, space, and support to thrive, both in the swimming pool and throughout their lives.”

Connor worked one-on-one with Adaptive Aquatics Instructor Jodi Dabrowski on his swimming skills, and started improving quickly. He soon felt comfortable in the water, using “rainbow arms” and kicking hard to make his way across the pool. Connor then joined a group of three to four other swimmers his age and continued to improve his socializing and motor skills.

“Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible with all of our programs,” says Jodi, now the special programs director at YMCA at Pabst Farms. “United Way funding helps us give kids like Connor the chance to be part of a team, stay active, and achieve his dreams.”

Of the children who participated in United Way-funded disabilities programs 93% displayed signs of developmental improvement in self-regulation of emotions and 97% displayed signs of improvement in motor skills.

United Way funding also allows the Y to keep programs affordable for all. In fact, the Y’s adaptive programs cost about a third of other programming options for kids with special needs in the area, and they give scholarships to ensure every kid has the chance to participate, regardless of a family's economic situation.

When Connor turned eight, he had grown to love swimming, and YMCA at Pabst Farms swimming staff approached Connor and his parents about joining the Special Olympics Team. Special Olympics provides sports training and competition to individuals with intellectual disabilities ages eight and up and the YMCA has a well-respected swim team.

In March of 2017, the team prepared for their first competition of the season. Both Connor and his parents were nervous. They didn't know what to expect or how Connor would react to a large swimming competition environment. The buzzer went off and Connor took off swimming, putting his face in, using strong arms and a great kick - so great that he won first place in his event!

Connor did so well during his first season that he qualified for the State Summer Games competition in Stevens Point, WI. Despite winning an impressive third place in his event, Connor’s favorite part of that experience was riding the bus with his teammates.

Brenda is excited about Connor’s future. “The Y is such an inclusive environment. In addition to the teams, you see people with different abilities working here,” said Brenda. “If I didn’t have a kid with Down syndrome, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it, but it gives me hope.”

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