BRIGANTINE — With a pink pool noodle tucked under her arms, Sari Carroll began a lap across the Aquatic Center pool chanting, “Scoop and push, scoop and push.”
As she moved her arms through the water, like ducklings behind her swam several children with special needs, ranging in age from 8 to 24, all chanting along, pool noodles in tow.
Through a program called Massi’s Mission, many of the children in Carroll’s group learned how to swim and have since graduated to the Special Olympics team she was teaching Saturday morning.
Carroll said it is imperative to teach children with special needs how to swim for two reasons: They live in a coastal community, and research shows accidental drowning is a top cause of death among children with autism.
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“All of the parents that you talk to about it basically say the same thing, that they’re scared, that they live two blocks from the ocean and the kids wander off and they’re so scared they’re going to wander into the water,” said Carroll, program director for the Brigantine Aquatic Center and swim instructor for Massi’s Mission, where she helps children on the autism spectrum learn how to get to safety when in the water.
Massi’s Mission was started about two years ago by support and advocacy group FACES 4 Autism board members Alexa Barrera and Jason Taylor after Taylor’s 4-year-old son, Bode, drowned in the family’s pool. Through Massi’s Mission, FACES provides eight-week scholarships for the students to learn how to survive if they fall into the water.
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“It’s based on what we say is safety and survivability in the water,” said FACES founder Isabelle Mosca, of Ventnor. “We don’t want them to not know how to get out of the water. There are kids who attend who are up to 15 years old who are afraid.”
Mosca said the name Massi comes from Barrera’s son, Massimo.
Four approved locations in Atlantic County participate in Massi’s Mission: the Brigantine Aquatic Center, the Milton & Betty Katz Jewish Community Center in Margate, and Tilton Fitness in both Galloway Township and Northfield.
Carroll said often the eight weeks is not long enough, but she works out a way to make sure the children learn if it takes longer.
“Since then, we had some kids that graduated to the Special Olympics program,” Carroll said.
Isabelle Mosca knows firsthand what it is like to love a child with autism spectrum disorder.
Massi’s Mission graduate Stan Adams swam for Absegami High School last year and recently won races at the New Jersey Special Olympics.
“Knowing that a group of parents who were concerned wanted to make that difference is key. When you see a need for something, you have to fill that need, and that’s what we have done with Massi’s Mission,” Mosca said.