FitcatZ Celebrates 10 Years at the College of Charleston

Campus Life, All News

Student volunteers with the FitcatZ aquatic and motor therapy community service program have been helping children with disabilities become efficient movers for 10 years.

Photos by Mike Ledford

Susan Flynn arrived at the College of Charleston with a passion for childhood development and her experiences teaching children with (dis)abilities in adapted physical education. Over the past decade, she’s imbued that verve to counts of students in the departments of Teacher Education and Health and Human Performance.

In 2014, Flynn initiated the FitCatZ program at CofC to provide aquatic and motor therapy for children to become confident and competent learners. Under the guidance of program group leaders, CofC students who volunteer through the First Year Experience program gain valuable experience to strengthen their career path interests.

FitcatZ was inspired by Flynn’s training at Bridgewater State College, where she participated in a similar program called the Children’s Developmental Clinic. The clinic aimed to “improve the ‘total development’ of children with (dis)abilities by enhancing vital physical, motor and aquatic skills and patterns as well as self-esteem.” Beginning as a volunteer and later assuming a leadership role during her senior year, Flynn’s dedication continued beyond graduation as she replicated the program at various universities.  

“When I came to the College of Charleston, they offered First Year Experiences, where professors can create their own class,” says Flynn. “I said, ‘This is a perfect opportunity for me to create an FYE class that will meet the requirements for departments to offer FYE classes, plus I can do something I love to do.’”

FitCatZ welcomes children ages 2 to 15 with a range of physical, intellectual, behavioral and emotional disabilities. The program is tailored to each child’s individual needs and may include anything from body awareness and spatial orientation to sports and water-safety skills.

College of Charleston students in the FYE program start the semester by researching adapted physical education strategies and techniques and teaching children at nearby Memminger Elementary School. They learn about different types of neurodiversity, how to work with children in a therapy setting and how to assess motor skills. Once matched with a child, the CofC volunteers develop goals and objectives for the six-week program, implementing weekly lessons to enhance the aquatic and motor skills of the child they work with. The program is conducted at St. Andrews Fitness Center.

“Most of the young adults that register for the First Year Experience course are excited they found this course because they want to be educators, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists or doctors. Most students in the course have an interest in teaching children with special needs,” says Kimberly Wheat, sensory integration specialist in the School of Education. “Anytime I get the opportunity to teach someone about our world, I get excited because I’m hoping these are our future leaders going into the field. And so, I think it’s fabulous.”

Belle Ritz, who will be a senior in the fall semester, took FitCatZ as her FYE course.

”My favorite memory was from my freshman year: I was working with a child whose doctors said there was something shut off in his brain that he would never be able to do specific skills. And after six weeks of working with him, we accomplished so much,” says Ritz. “That just made me so ecstatic. And it made my heart so happy. So, after that happened, and seeing how much these kids really look forward to coming every single week and seeing the impact that it has, this fueled my commitment.”

FitCatZ is truly a labor of love for Flynn and her team. They spend hours setting up the equipment and then cleaning up after.

“It’s a lot of work for a three-hour class,” says Flynn, “but the joy of being with the kids each week is phenomenal.”

She gives an example of one student, Bennet Bonacci, who was one of the first children to join the program in 2014 and is now an assistant clinician with FitCatZ, helping out with the program and playing games with the kids: “It’s his second semester as an assistant, and he’ll continue next semester. His dad says it’s difficult to find opportunities for older kids with disabilities.”

For Flynn, that’s what it’s all about – and she loves getting the feedback.

“We received such a nice comment from one of the parents of a 3-year-old girl with Down syndrome. The mom said, ‘I just can’t thank you enough. My child, who doesn’t talk, is like Chatty Cathy all the way home after FitCatZ.’

“They obviously enjoy the experience,” she continues. “They learn how to swim and learn how to engage with others and play, plus they develop meaningful connections with their FitCatZ buddies, their college friends.”

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