Monty and Allison Ferraro stood squinting out at a kayak across Kootenay Lake.
From their vantage point, the pair could also barely see what looked like a blue dot skimming ever so slowly across the water, but they were still transfixed by the scene.
“There they go! I still think that’s amazing. Kayaking in the middle of a lake!” Monty said before he burst into a joyous laughter.
The Ferraros were watching their 18-year-old son Ben taking a lesson as part of the barrier-free open-water training program organized by the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Ben, like the other five participants in the program, has special needs. The program is aimed at helping young people learn water safety and overcome barriers. Ben, for example, is a swimmer but balance issues mean getting into a kayak is difficult.
“We laughed about it when we first started. I said to Allison if we’d tried this together we’d get about six feet and we’d be all wet,” said Monty. “So it’s really remarkable to see him do this. It’s a completely new thing for him.”
The program’s students had already been attending classes at the NDCC pool. But the idea for open-water training came to staff last year after they attended an international conference on drowning in Vancouver.
Clement Lam, the NDCC’s head swimming coach, was paddling in the kayak behind Ben as the Ferraros looked on while another support staffer hovered nearby on a paddle board. Lam said his students are often kept from accessing lakes and rivers due to a number of barriers, such as a fear of jumping into deep water or even the feeling of sand at a beach.
At the pool, Lam helps his students adapt their strokes to fit physical limitations. On the lake, the priority is safety.
“Out here, this population, because of the human condition that they live with, they are particularly vulnerable to drowning and other water accidents,” said Lam. “So we want to get them as familiar with open water as possible so they build confidence and skill and stay safe in, out and around water.”
Lam’s rapport with his students also helps. He’s been working with them one-on-one for over a year, and has built enough trust to get even more hesitant participants into a tippy boat.
“Clement has a real passion for kids really adapting and finding their own unique ways of learning,” said Erin Roulette, whose 15-year-old son Cedar Roulette-Wolf is one of Lam’s students.
“When kids do have special needs or just require adaptations, it’s really got to be personalized in order for the program to fit. They’ve developed a relationship. I feel like [Clement] really knows Cedar. They’ve become friends, he knows Cedar’s boundaries, he knows what works for Cedar. I think the bottom line is he has a passion for this. Cedar feels that and feels it’s a genuine connection.”
The lessons, which Lam hopes to continue next year, have already made an impression on Cedar.
“This past weekend he took the kayak out and he’s found a passion for it,” said Roulette. “So I think from this program that’s been an awesome new activity he can do, and he’s actually really good at it.”