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College Junior and Founder and President of Special Needs Undergraduate Swim Lessons Kristen Sardis at a recent swim lesson held in Potruck Fitness Center (Photo from Kristen Sardis).

College and Wharton junior Kristen Sardis started a club that provides free swim lessons for special needs children in Philadelphia at Pottruck Health and Fitness Center.

Sardis, the president of Special Needs Undergraduate Swim Lessons at Penn, began the process of founding the Penn branch of the national nonprofit in fall 2019, with the goal of providing free lessons for local children ages 3-18. After COVID-19-related delays, SNUGS was able to host its first in-person swim lessons during the fall 2021 semester. 

SNUGS has branches at nine universities. According to its website, its mission is to combat drowning, which is a primary cause of death of children with disabilities. 

Sardis said that she started SNUGS at Penn because she is a competitive swimmer who has worked children who have special needs from a young age. 

“It was like a little piece of my life that was nice to bring to college,” she said. 

Sardis added that SNUGS has had over 100 parents sign up for swim lessons, and the club was able to give lessons to over 30 children last semester. Lessons are scheduled for Sunday afternoons, and run for 30 minutes each.

The swim lessons, Sardis said, focus less on form and more on basic water safety since most of the children have little to no experience in the water. 

SNUGS currently has 20 active members, according to Sardis, and volunteers can sign up for as many or as few sessions as they prefer. There is no application needed to apply and members do not have to have to be lifeguard certified. 

“All of our volunteers did such an amazing job last semester with the communication boundaries and being able to teach without words by leading by example,” Sardis said, adding that around 40% of the children the club worked with were nonverbal.

College junior and SNUGS Vice President Simone Fortin said that she joined the club because she has a brother with special needs who learned to swim through a similar program.

“I saw how it changed people's lives,” she said. “I really wanted to help out and everything because it's super close to home.”

Fortin said that her favorite part of the club is seeing how happy the parents are. Her favorite memory, she added, was when she was finally able to get one student to put her head under water during their final session. 

“We got in the water, and she just immediately dumped her head. We were jumping in and out of the pool. And her mom was just ecstatic, like 'Oh my god, I've never seen my daughter like this before,'” she said. 

Fortin said was glad to be part of a special moment for both the girl and her family. 

“Coming from me personally,  having a special needs brother, it is something that affects the whole family,” she said. “So when a milestone happens, it really is something that's super special for everyone in the family too.”

Looking forward, Fortin and Sardis said that one future goal for SNUGS is to continue expanding and recruiting new volunteers to meet the high demand for swim lessons. 

“When these kids get in the pool, it's so therapeutic for them. Swimming is just so good for a lot of these kids,” Fortin said.