Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.

The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.

It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.

Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.

Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.

The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.

Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.

STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.

St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.

St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.

Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.

Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.

But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.

Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.

A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.

The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.

Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.

Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.

This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.

The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.

Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.

Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.

Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.

Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”

It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.

And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.

(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.) 

8 responses to “Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

  1. Dana McCreesh

    It is a total joy to witness the special needs swimmers, proudly sharing the logo of the venerable Westport Water Rats team. The Y does so many good things for such a wide variety of people, but this is one of my Favorites. Everyone is welcome here. And thank you to the kids who volunteer to help, and to the Kiev family and others. It’s a wonder to see kids “donate their birthdays” to help others. With all the worries about kids and technology, we often miss what an inclusive and giving generation they are. Kudos to the parents/coaches/teachers.

  2. Dorothy Robertshaw

    Fabulous article thank you for sharing❤️

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    As a special needs father I completely applaud what the Y is doing and this initiative in particular. However, the loss of the downtown location and its accessibility is no ally to the cause of mainstreaming, special needs kids or otherwise. I was the child of a single parent and my ability to walk from school to the Y kept me out of trouble and provided an alternative to just going home to an empty house.

  4. Kudos to the Y.

  5. Jim Ross, Westport Commission on People with Disabilities

    Inclusion, accessibility and self-determination. These core themes are alive and well at our Y. Congrats to the staff and the volunteers who help make it happen and the super spectacular athletes who show each and every day, true heart, determination, courage and achievement! Great article!

  6. Catherine Walker

    Dan, thrilled you covered this. I think it’s why our Y is such a special place for the entire community. As a mom I love that our Y is the happy place for everyone: world record swimmers, babbling toddlers, high energy school children of all abilities, gymnasts of every age and stage, and adult fitness class enthusiasts of every shape and size. It’s a place where everyone thrives.

  7. I worked at the Y for five years until fairly recently. I worked in the Fitness Center where we had special needs children and adults often. They were the highlight of my day sometimes, and I respect and applaud the Y, the special needs members and all those who help them in any way.

  8. Dan, Very nice story. All the best Art