Andover Students Volunteer for EMARC, Integrate Athletics and Community Service

James Fallon is one of New England’s most accomplished swimmers. He has never won a championship swim meet, he is not a varsity letterman, and he only practices once a week. Yet every Sunday for the past seven years, Fallon has shared with 11 Phillips Academy volunteers a passion for swimming, experiencing the more intangible rewards of athletics. Fallon is one of fourteen disabled children from the surrounding area that participates in EMARC (Eastern Middlesex Association of Retarded Citizens) swimming, a program that allows student volunteers to combine their love for athletics with a desire to participate in community service. The EMARC swim program was started eight years ago by Elizabeth Asch ’01. After both Asch and family friend Fallon were denied positions in a similar program, Asch initiated her own program in affiliation with EMARC with the support of her mother, Dr. Rhonda Fogle. Although her daughter has now graduated, Dr. Fogle continues to head up EMARC swimming. Around half of the fourteen swimmers are her patients, and she has expanded the program to include sixteen student volunteers, eleven of whom are from Andover, and two professional swim teachers. Even so, Dr. Fogle is continually astounded with the program’s success. She said, “I am amazed how every child has progressed in their swimming. Families report that when these kids enjoy the water and learn to swim, that this simple skill normalizes family vacations and leisure time because these kids can participate, too. Also, many of these kids have limited social opportunities. Just having an activity where the children are welcomed is normalizing.” My Khanh Ngo ’06 is a three year member of the program. Ngo said, “Working with my buddy David for so long has been both challenging and rewarding.” She continued, “There are times when he just doesn’t feel like swimming, so that no matter how much I encourage him, he doesn’t move.” Ngo went on to say, “But when David managed to swim a foot on his own at the deep end of the pool, I realized how much all the work pays off. Even more rewarding is seeing the parents’ faces when they see their child do something they could never do before.” The EMARC swimmers have disabilities ranging from physical limitations to chromosome abnormalities to autism. In many cases, it is a success to just get the child in to the water and feeling comfortable. Seven years ago, when James Fallon started in the program at age five, he would sit on the side of the pool, never talking, and not even put his feet in the water. He spoke some of his first words in the pool, and now swims above and under the water, and is one of the most social swimmers in the program. His mother describes his success as “unbelievable.” Stories like James’s, while astounding, are typical at EMARC. Countless small victories – the first time a child floats on his back by himself, the first time she puts her face under, when he swims by himself for just a few yards or rolls on to his back to breathe – are recorded every week. Dr. Fogle credits the spirit and devotion of the volunteers as the leading cause of this success. She said, “For [volunteers] who drive 30 minutes each way, get up early on Sundays, miss breakfast, and get in the water with a special needs child … [they] truly represent the spirit of non sibi.” She continued, “My hope is that these volunteers, who, I am sure, will become the movers and shakers of the world, will someday be able to help disabled children everywhere; they have already an enormous impact on the lives of these children and their families.” While EMARC has certainly been a rewarding experience for the EMARC swimmers, the program has also had an impact on the many Andover volunteers who spend an hour each week in the water with Fallon and his peers. Katie Faulkner ’06 has also been with EMARC for three years. Faulkner said, “EMARC has been one of my most rewarding Andover experiences because it allows me to share my passion for swimming with others who are not concerned with time standards and endurance workouts, but rather goals of improving confidence in the water and trust between the volunteer and the swimmer.” Steve Blackman ’07, another Andover volunteer, said, “EMARC is so different than all the other community service programs. By working one-on-one with these kids, we really develop a bond with them and it’s so rewarding to know you were able to help them out. Seeing kids who you’d never expect to be swimming in the water having a great time makes it all worthwhile.