Water works

Three Kiwanis clubs help persons with special needs and their families enjoy the life aquatic.

Story by Julie Saetre

Scott Leason was a young U.S. Navy veteran in July 1993, working the graveyard shift at a convenience store, when a robber shot him in the head, blinding him in both eyes. Growing up in southern California, Leason had always been an enthusiastic participant in outdoor sports, including surfing and waterskiing. After the shooting, he believed his activities would be greatly curtailed, leading to depression and anger.

Then he heard about the sport of blind waterskiing. Intrigued, he tried it and found a new goal: to qualify for and compete in the U.S. Disabled Waterski Nationals. That’s when he turned to the Mission Bay Aquatic Center in Mission Bay Aquatic Center and its adaptive sports programming.

“He found solace and normalcy in being able to access waterskiing,” says Kevin Waldick, the center’s assistant director. “Since he started training here, he’s competed in international competitions, and he’s completed an Iron Man.”

Janet Dykhouse, 7, and her dad, Aaron Dykhouse, 45, fish for salmon during the 2018 Tri-Cities Kiwanis Salmon Tournament on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, Mich., on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Casey Sykes for Kiwanis Magazine)

And yes, in 2008, Leason qualified for the Disabled Waterski Nationals; today, he’s the reigning silver medalist in both the slalom and trick categories.

Leason’s participation at Mission Bay got a big boost from the Torrey Pines, La Jolla Kiwanis Club, which helps fund adaptive sports equipment and instruction. And stories like his illustrate why such programming is so important.

According to disabled-world.com, studies have shown that people with disabilities who participate in adaptive sports are less stressed, more independent and less dependent on medication for pain and depression. They also achieve more academically and professionally.

A 2017 report published in the Health and Quality of Life Outcomes journal reported that adaptive sports participants experience positive effects on self-esteem, self-efficacy and a sense of belonging.

Like the Torrey Pines club, Kiwanis clubs in Michigan (left) and Florida have made the most of their waterside locations to support H2O-based adaptive sports programming. And they’re making a difference in the lives of participants ranging from children to seniors.

Brett Demink, 39, steadies the rod as his son, Thomas Demink, 10, reels in a fish during the 2018 Tri-Cities Kiwanis Salmon Tournament on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, Michigan, on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Casey Sykes for Kiwanis Magazine.)

Grand Haven, Michigan

Photos by Casey Sykes

Twice a year, in May and July, a group of excited young people arrives at Chinook Pier in Grand Haven, Michigan, in the early morning hours, ready for adventure. Soon, each child, teen or young adult — along with a parent, grandparent or other guardian — will board a professional charter fishing boat. By 6 a.m., those boats will set out for the waters of Lake Michigan, and the young guests will get down to business, competing to see who can bring home the biggest catch in the Tri-Cities Kiwanis Salmon Tournament.

How big?


The coho salmon in Lake Michigan can weigh up to 16 pounds, and a steelhead trout can reach the 18-pound mark — not exactly like reeling in a bluegill at the local fishing hole. But these young people know how to fight. All of them are current or immediate past patients of either Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital or Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids. Some have experience with both facilities. 

“Some of these kids are pretty sick,” says Amy Urick, the tournaments’ coordinator and a member of the Tri Cities, Grand Haven-Spring Lake Kiwanis Club. “But most are nearing the end of their care or are past active treatment entirely when they fish with us. Or they have a lifelong disability rather than an acute disease.”

The charter boats accommodate guests in non-motorized wheelchairs, so those with mobility-limiting conditions such as spina bifida can get in on the action.

The “Patient VIPs,” as Urick describes them, get to keep whatever they catch. And in addition to an award for the largest fish, prizes also are distributed through a lottery system using the fish tags that identify each salmon hauled aboard.

Thomas Demink, 10, poses with the pike he caught as his dad, Brett Demink, 39, looks on during the 2018 Tri-Cities Kiwanis Salmon Tournament on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, Michigan, on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Casey Sykes for Kiwanis Magazine)

The tournaments’ reach extends beyond the participants, however. Through sponsorships, the events raise funds for pediatric care and Child Life programs at North Ottawa Community Health System and for children’s hospitals in Michigan, including DeVos, Mary Free Bed and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In 2018 alone, the tournaments brought in US$40,000 for the organizations.

And then there are the intangible benefits, which, Urick stresses, can’t be underestimated.

“Our events also offer a valuable bonding experience with a parent, sibling or other relative, or even a chance to form friendships between patients. Sometimes these impacts go further than we could ever imagine.”



San Diego, California

Photos by Mission Bay Aquatic Center

The Mission Bay Aquatic Center was created under a banner of diversity, so it’s not surprising the facility has been a pioneer in adaptive sports. Launched in the 1970s by Associated Students of San Diego State University and University of California San Diego Recreation, the center was designed to make water sports accessible to those who couldn’t otherwise afford lessons and equipment. In the 1980s, the staff received a grant from the United States government to develop water-sports opportunities for people with disabilities.

“The very first accessible water ski for people with disabilities was actually built here,” says Assistant Director Waldick. “It started with waterskiing, and then it went to kayaking to sailing. And now we have about 800 people a year and their families coming through.”


The center’s programming takes two tracks: activities designed specifically for people with disabilities and inclusion options, which allow those with disabilities to participate in a regularly scheduled class alongside their able-bodied peers. That’s where the Torrey Pines, La Jolla Kiwanis Club comes in, as the title sponsor of inclusion. 

Thanks to the club’s support, the center can provide facilitators for 45 to 50 weeks a year. Kiwanians also have funded some of the adaptive-sports equipment, which often must be custom-made and therefore carries a hefty price tag.

As a result, doors open to those previously denied such an experience, and the results can be transformative.

“Everybody knows the value in physical activity and recreation for able-bodied persons,” says Waldick, “and it’s even more important for people with disabilities who may have more limited opportunities. So when they come along, it’s a pretty profound experience.”


vero beach fl sailing lessons_kiwanissailing-0275_molly dempsey domin

Vero Beach, Florida

Photos by Molly Dempsey

It’s a quiet morning at the Youth Sailing Foundation, nestled on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon in Vero Beach, Florida. But that’s unusual for this 10-year-old nonprofit formed to offer free sailing lessons to children without financial means to pay for them.

In 2018, the foundation added adaptive sailing to its offerings when volunteer Dick Gates donated three boats designed especially for that purpose. Outfitted with a deep cockpit, side-by-side bucket seating (in two of the vessels), joystick steering and added stability measures, the boats provide an environment that allows sailors with disabilities to feel safe, secure and confident.

“And the boats are fully self-tacking” explains Stu Keiller, the foundation’s executive director. “You don’t have to touch the sheets or the sail.”

The foundation had one barrier, however. It needed an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant gangway to help participants access a recently installed 60-foot floating dock. When Keiller, a member of the Vero-Treasure Coast Kiwanis Club, shared details about the adaptive sailing program with his fellow members, they immediately decided to fund the ramp.

vero beach fl sailing lessons_kiwanissailing-9048_molly dempsey domin

It wasn’t long until the first class of sailors, ranging in age from 12 to 61, set out for the lagoon waters. 

“They were very nervous, very anxious about getting in the boat,” Keiller says. “And within a few minutes, they saw the boat was not going to tip over. All of a sudden, that sailboat is leaning into the wind and going. It’s a tremendous sensation.”

Class participants loved the experience so much that attendance for the multi-week course was 100 percent. And by its conclusion, two mariners had progressed beyond the joystick system.

Gates, a former Midwesterner who taught himself to sail and has delivered yachts to exotic destinations, saw the results.

“They were using both the steering and the main sheet. They were doing the whole thing. And they were just so proud of themselves. They start out and it’s like, ‘I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I want to do this.’ And then pretty soon, it’s, ‘Hey, I’m just as good as anybody else, and I can do this.’”

vero beach fl sailing lessons_kiwanissailing-8864_molly dempsey domin

This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.


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