Six-year-old Koll begins to get tired part way through his latest visit to the hydrotherapy pool inside Surrey’s Centre for Child Development.
Above him, daylight pours in through the windows, highlighting a colourful and playful mural.
He appears to nod off, as his eyes shut and his head slowly drops toward the water.
Then, as quickly as a brief fit of fatigue hits, it passes.
His eyes open wide and giggles erupt as a massive smile stretches across his face.
“It’s his happy place, being in the water,” smiles his mother Crissy Eiben, standing nearby as Koll’s physiotherapist works with him. “He’s a bit of a fish, even though he doesn’t swim per se. But him being here and in this environment is actually a really positive place for him. It’s a positive place for me as well, as a parent with a child who has special needs.
“You can see his pure joy.”
While Eiben explains Koll will enjoy water anywhere, she said this facility is set up well for his needs, as he uses a wheelchair.
There is a ceiling lift if she ever becomes unable to lift him on her own, and the facility has special chairs that enable Eiben to shower with Koll hands-free and not worry about his safety.
“For us to be able to navigate, as well, is really important. There are pools in the community I can’t and won’t go to because they’re not accessible. And I have three kids, so that can be challenging.”
Koll, who is in Grade 1 in Delta, first started coming to the pool when he was in Kindergarten.
The pool recently re-opened on Sept. 25 after closing during the summer to complete some much-needed repairs that were made possible by roughly $130,000 in donations.
This was Koll’s first visit since the renovations finished, and he and mom were thrilled to be back.
Eiben says she’ll bring Koll every second week from now on, pulling him out of school to attend. This time, she says, serves as his physical education.
Sometimes, his therapy involves using ankle weights, practicing standing.
“So we’ll have him walk under water. They have things to use here to use as part of therapy. That’s huge. It’s fun – but it’s therapy.”
Gerard Bremault, CEO of the Centre for Child Development, says the recent renovations and upgrades were the first the pool has seen since it was built in 1974.
“The Mowafaghian Foundation gave us a $65,000 donation as a matching gift and on the night of our gala last year, all of our guests matched that amount. So we raised a $125,000-plus on that night,” he explains. “Together with another grant from SurreyCares Foundation, basically $130,000 of renovations have gone on. But it’s been for things that are not always very sexy, so god bless our donors. So it’s for things like grout, repairing change rooms, replacing fixtures that are outdated, new showers, a new lift.”
The funds also made it possible for the charity to keep the pool open on weekends.
“This is all fundraised,” says Bremault, standing aside the pool’s edge. “This part of the building, the staffing part of it. There’s only two actual recreation staff. Both have been through everything with the pool.”
He says the pool is “more than just therapy.”
“The team also works on social skills. That’s kind of the hidden part, so many of our kids have real challenges connecting socially with other children in the community, other families.” he remarks. “This place is an equalizer. It’s one of those rare pools that’s specially designed to give kids with special needs an advantage, so now they’re on equal footing, so to speak, with their peers or siblings or friends. It’s making it fun – and you can have a whole family here together. It’s therapeutic, but it’s social, and everyone is enjoying themselves. It’s a very loved space. And it’s often a treat or reward, because other parts of therapy can be hard, and maybe not so fun.”
In all, the centre serves 3,200 children in the South Fraser region but on this day, about a half dozen children are in the pool.
Most are from Surrey schools and have been excused from their classes to visit the pool, in lieu of physical education time, explains Heidi Wagner, director of recreation services for the charity.
“And sometimes they just need some extra programs because they’re not doing all the academics at school that the rest of the classroom is. So instead they’ll get pulled out and come here for a swim instead. We usually work on therapeutic goals while they’re here,” she added.
The warmth in the pools vicinity is noticeable.
“Yes, it is a bit warm. Our pool temperature is 93 degrees,” Wagner says. “We heat the air in here a little bit more than your home, just because it’s so cold getting out once you’re 93 degrees in the pool there, so it’s not such a shocking transition. We heat the room to about 77 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Wagner explains that heat helps relax muscles.
“Years ago, most of our clients were solely cerebral palsy, and have a lot of spasticity in the muscles. We use the warm muscles to help loosen up some of the spasticity and help them get some more movement,” she says. “Then the anti-gravity properties as well. If they’re sitting in their chair all day long it’s so nice to get out and have that freedom. They can move so much easier in the water without gravity than they can on land, for some of them. Others are working on walking programs, especially after surgery. A lot of our kids have surgeries from the hips down and it takes them a bit to get walking afterward. We use the water, because a lot of the times they can’t do full weight bearing when they start walking again, so we do partial weight bearing in the pool here. Then they gradually move back to land.”
Today, the clientele has shifted and the charity is seeing a marked increase in children with sensory issues, including autism. The charity uses the pool to serve children with severe or significant disabilities that require multiple therapies. That includes everything from cerebral palsy and spina bifida to all types of developmental delays and mental health concerns.
While the centre can see children as early as six months, they generally don’t enter the pool until they’re about a year old.
And, while the centre technically services children up to the age of 19, the pool can still be utilized once children become adults, if needed.
“Especially if they cannot access the community,” says Wagner. “Sometimes kids have been using our pools for years, they need the ceiling lift, they need the larger change tables that we provide, and if they can’t find a pool in the community that works for them, we allow them to stay here.”
The pool’s specialty equipment, such as ankle weights that Koll utilizes sometimes, is what makes it so accessible.
From custom flotation devices made in Michigan that allow children who can’t walk to swim independently, to lifts that are placed above the pool as well as in the change rooms, hydraulic tables with adjustable heights, and specialty chairs, the list just goes on.
Wagner says seeing children learn new skills and succeed fuels her passion.
“We’ve had some paralympians come out of our pool and recreational services,” Wagner beams. “Working with the families is my passion. I enjoy seeing the progress the children make. Sometimes it’s very small increments, but a lot of the time I can see them over their preschool years, their school years and sometimes even into adulthood.”
Bremault echoes that.
“What our families say to us, over and over again, is it’s great all of these things you provide but what really is the most important thing is that you never give up on me and my children. You always find a way to help, and always give us hope that we can do more,” he says. “The whole group of therapies are coming together to find these ways to find little tiny pieces of progress.”
Meantime, the Centre for Child Development is gearing up for its 2019 Gala of Hope, with “Bubbles and Bling” being this year’s theme. It’s set for 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26 at the Tsawwassen Springs Golf Course (5133 Springs Blvd.). Tickets can be purchased online at the-centre.org/gala.
The centre is located at 9460 140th St.