NYC pool for children with disabilities remains closed; state says staffing is to blame

STATEN ISLAND, NY — There’s still no timeline for the reopening of the One on One swim lesson at the Elizabeth Connelly Center, leaving children with intellectual and developmental disabilities dry.

The pool closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The One on One swimming lesson, led by Nick Defonte, has changed the lives of disabled children in Staten Island. In fact, one parent told Advance/SILive.com that her daughter’s obsessive-compulsive and self-destructive behaviors decreased when she swam regularly.

Another parent said his son, who couldn’t speak, started singing for the first time.

And five-year-old Giovanni Cordone has finally been able to swim on his own and now has an understanding of water safety he didn’t have before starting the One on One programme.

Parents of children with disabilities say their children have regressed due to the lack of consistency, socialization and physical activity the pool has provided.

Cait Bergren, 8, and her instructor Alicia Defonte. “[Swimming] is so therapeutic and touches on so many things. When you have a child with sensory processing disorder, it’s like a wake-up call for them,” said Cait’s mother, MaryBeth Bergren. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bergren)

THE STATE SAYS STAFFING IS THE PROBLEM; OWNER SAYS STAFF HAS NEVER BEEN AN ISSUE BEFORE COVID

Defonte was optimistic about the pool reopening when Mayor Eric Adams rescinded the city’s mask and vaccination mandates, only to be told the pool should remain closed.

“[The Office for People with Developmental Disabilities] violates a signed contract that was followed by both parties, only COVID stopped the use of the pool,” Defonte said. “So the pool is there, maintained and ready to use, but because of bureaucratic nonsense, children, teenagers and adults with special needs are suffering.”

Defonte shared an email with Advance/SILive.com from the State Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), which oversees the program, that an OPWDD provider must take over operations, accountability and pool operating costs before the pool can reopen.

A spokesperson for the OPWDD told Advance/SILive.com that the closure of the Elizabeth Connelly Pool is related to the current staffing crisis and not previous terms of the city.

“When the pool is open, there are staffing needs related to daily maintenance, supervision of admission and lifeguards (in addition to liability issues) and planning. The OPWDD is considering a number of options to reopen the pool, including the possibility of an OPWDD-approved service provider taking over the operation of the pool, including maintenance, liability and planning” , said the spokesperson.

While the OPWDD says lack of personnel is the problem, Defonte says there was never any state personnel on site; he always worked in coordination – weekly and daily if necessary – with an OPWDD staff member.

Defonte shared the signed contract with Advance/SILive.com.

He said all staff had been vaccinated and the pool had been maintained throughout the pandemic. “It’s ready to go. I have a rental agreement valid until June 2022. We are ready to leave, we just need the agreement,” he said.

OUTDOOR POOLS ARE NOT AN OPTION FOR CHILDREN I/DD

Defonte and his family opened the One on One program in March 2019 with four participants. When the doors closed due to COVID-19, there were over 200 attendees.

Speaking about the program, Defonte affectionately referred to all participants as “his children”.

“I have a child, a guy, he is 17 years old. I made it sing and swim. We do a little speech therapy, we do a little exercise, we shoot basketballs in the water depending on each child,” Defonte said.

During the pandemic, Defonte has opened up his home and personal pool to attendees. But now that the weather is getting colder, an outdoor pool is no longer an option.

“It’s not good mentally or physically for the kids or the parents. It’s just not a good situation [right now]. There must be something we can do,” he said.

FOLLOW KRISTIN F. DALTON ON TWITTER.

About Richard Chandler

Check Also

Carlsbad house with pool, ocean view: $2.29 million

CARLSBAD, CA — Looking for a home with a pool? Check out this Carlsbad home. …