Staff shortage leads to continued closure of New York City swim program for children with disabilities, officials say

STATEN ISLAND, NY – For parents of children with intellectual and physical disabilities (I / DD), the one-on-one swimming lesson at the Elizabeth Connelly Center at the College of Staten Island, Willowbrook has been life changing.

But since the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) closed the centre’s swimming pool in March 2020, parents of disabled children who were enrolled in the program say their children have regressed due to lack of consistency, socialization and lack of consistency. physical activity provided by the swimming pool.

“It’s scary to have a child with autism or a disability to be honest. But when you have a child with autism and you have a swimming pool, your heart is in your throat all the time, ”said MaryBeth Bergren, whose 8-year-old daughter Cait has autism.

“[Swimming] is so therapeutic and touches on so many things. When you have a child with a sensory processing disorder, it’s like a wake-up call for them, ”said Bergren.

She said her daughter’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) decreased when she swam regularly in the pool; his self-injurious behaviors also decreased. And she was finally able to follow multi-step instructions.


While other indoor pools – like those at the YMCA, LA Fitness and other centers – have reopened, the I / DD community has been without a swim program since the start of the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), which oversees the program, told Advance / that the reason the pool has not yet reopened is due to staff shortages that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“As with all areas of human services nationwide, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on an already small number of workers available to staff developmental disability programs. Currently, the OPWDD does not have the staff to safely support the operation of the Elizabeth Connelly Center Pool. As the workforce situation improves, we hope that the programs provided to the pool will resume, ”said the spokesperson.

Although the OPWDD says understaffing is the drag, program instructor Nick Defonte said there had never been an OPWDD staff member on site; he has always worked in coordination with and reported to the OPWDD.

“I would report to [a staff member] and we had no problem; the pool worked well. She was making improvements in the pool and we worked together. It was the government and the citizens working together in a very nice way, ”Defonte said.

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

Kids of all ages enjoyed the pool, said instructor Nick Defonte, who said it was more than just swimming. And kids, like Cait Bergren, can’t go to fitness centers to use their pools. “The acoustics alone are overwhelming,” she said. In addition, the Elizabeth Connelly Center pool is heated unlike other pools.


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 more than 200 participants.

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

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

“I have a kid, a guy, he’s 17. I made him 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 opened his home and personal swimming pool to participants. 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.


Marissa Baratta – who owns Rainbow’s Reach, an integrated socialization program for children with I / DD – said at the request of a student, Rainbow’s Reach used the One on One program.

“The smiles and the therapeutic aspect that this program gives to these children are immeasurable,” said Baratta.

“It’s so important, especially after all the service, educational and social losses for these children. It is essential for their growth, both physically, emotionally and socially. Swimming is completely sensory. It can improve and improve speech, coordination, self-esteem, and cognitive processing. They need this pool to be reopened as soon as possible, ”she continued.


Giovanni Cordone, five, has made huge strides since taking part in the One on One program, said his mother Vincenza Mineo, a resident of Annadale.

Giovanni was able to swim alone this summer in a water park and was even able to do the obstacle course in the pool which he was not able to do in the past.

One-on-one swimming program

Giovanni Cordone, five, has made huge strides since taking part in the One on One program, said his mother Vincenza Mineo, a resident of Annadale. Nick Defonte even came to Mineo this summer to teach Giovanni. (Photo courtesy of Vincenza Mineo)

“He wasn’t comfortable with this before and didn’t really understand how to behave in the water, and Nick really helped him with that,” Mineo said, adding that his confidence had increased and that he had an understanding of water safety that he didn’t have before.

Defonte even came to Mineo during the summer to continue Cordone’s lessons.

“Our community with special needs is neglected and our children are suffering. Someone must notice it now; someone needs to be heard because our children are regressing from the loss of the therapeutic services provided by this incredible therapeutic swimming program. We need this pool to be open now, ”said Bergren.


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