What stood out were the smiles – six of them on the faces of young swimmers taking lessons at the Chesterfield Athletic Club pool. The swimmers have special needs. The lessons were designed to allow them, boys and girls, age 4-8, to improve muscle tone and enhance their physical mobility.
And also have fun.
Meghan Morgan and a group of largely college student volunteers were putting their students through their paces – pulling them through the water and asking them to kick their feet, having them swim to an outstretched instructor’s hand, having them put their heads underwater and float on their backs.
“She loves the water,” said Megan Kaup, as she watched her 7-year-old daughter, Sawyer. “They were off last week [for the Thanksgiving holiday] and she didn’t know they were off,” which prompted questions. Sawyer started the lessons last fall.
The instructors were good at instilling trust. Carter Fiedler, 6, also was progressing.
“When he first started, he didn’t want to put his head under the water,” said his mother, Julie. The swimming is helping improve Carter’s muscle tone.
“The water in general really feels good on their bodies, it’s a very nice way to get therapy without having to go to ‘quote, unquote’ therapy,” said Morgan, program director for the Disabled Athletes Sports Association [DASA], a nonprofit that provides therapeutic sports and fitness opportunities to children and adults. The participants often have permanent physical, visual and hearing disabilities that limit their participation in sports or activities with people who don’t have disabilities.
Therapy, yes, but it’s more than that, Kaup said. Being able to participate in swimming is a small step toward young athletes realizing that they, like everyone, have abilities, that their lives don’t have to be limited.
“They’re having fun and they’re swimming like everyone else in the water,” Kaup said.
Focusing on abilities rather than disabilities
Helping people with physical disabilities tap into their abilities and improve their lives isn’t a new movement. Coupling physical therapy with athletic activities can improve fitness, decrease common ailments, limit weight gain and increase strength – all associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Some of the most popular activity-based programs are Special Olympics and the Paralympic games. Special Olympic events are geared toward children that often have developmental or cognitive disabilities. Paralympics are positioned more toward competitive sporting events where athletes have to meet high standards. Both were underway in 1997 when St. Charles County resident Kelly Behlmann was working as a pediatric physical therapist and with other clients.
“I felt I was being directed to ‘quote’ fix these clients,” Behlmann said. Her work with individual clients also was limited by their insurance coverage. She felt she was sending home quadriplegics that weren’t ready to go home or having clinic and school policies limit her work with children.
There also was a growing realization who therapy in a clinical setting was often not enough. She said she talked to the parents, saying she would rather see their children on a basketball court playing rather than doing therapy in a clinic-based session.
“It’s therapy for all of us to be active,” Behlmann said. “But to limit their physical ability within a clinical setting – limiting them to doing those squats or straight-leg raises or two-pound weights – it also limits them mentally.”
“They say ‘this is what I am, I’m a patient,’ versus getting out and doing rock-climbing or pushing a basketball [wheelchair] chair really fast.
“I had a young man in a clinical therapy setting, I was teaching him to pop a wheelie with his wheelchair so he could get up on a curb. But in martial arts, he had to pop a wheelie to do a kick and get his green belt. So it was much more motivating for him.
“It’s still therapy. But he wasn’t doing it as patient, he was doing it as a person and carried it forward.”
So, 20 years ago, DASA began – in Behlmann’s basement.
“One of my best friends is a paraplegic and I was kind of explaining to him the frustration I was having with the challenges I was having with treating my spinal cord injury patients and the patients I had in school,” she said. “I didn’t want them to be patients anymore, I wanted them to be people with abilities.
“And he said, ‘well, why don’t you just do your own thing,’” Behlmann said. “… and it really was that easy. We sat there that night at the computer and figured out how to form a nonprofit – nothing that I ever dreamed would actually happen.”
Behlmann put down her mom and neighbors as governing board members, threw in a five-year plan and, within two weeks, had a nonprofit certificate. “I thought, OK, I guess we’re going to do this.”
It began slowly with sessions in her basement with the core idea of providing an affordable service that emphasizes the abilities of each child rather than focusing on their disabilities. Slowly the organization grew with a limited staff. Behlmann said she worked as a part-time employee or volunteered her time to DASA in the first decade. She began drawing more patients, organizing activities and finding facilities where activities could take place, as well as fundraising and recruiting volunteers.
Headquartered in St. Peters, DASA now operates throughout the St. Louis region, featuring a variety of sports activities ranging from wheelchair rugby and basketball to soccer, golf, track, archery, sled hockey, skiing, and a summer camp for children with disabilities and competitions.
DASA has expanded into a sports club, grooming champion athletes including Paralympic medalists. It has a $550,000 annual budget and raised $160,000 at its 20th-anniversary event in November. Much of its expenses go toward acquiring needed wheelchairs and other equipment that allow clients to participate in special activities.
The organization works with children and adults with cerebral palsy, hypertonia, spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, amputation, deafness or hearing loss, visual impairments and strokes.
Activities are available for clients age 5 to adults, including U.S. military veterans, and serve about 300 children and adults in the region. Sessions generally cost $30 for any particular activity, though fees can vary, especially if travel is involved. DASA works closely with healthcare institutions, along with school districts, to identify potential athletes. It also has agreements with Lindenwood, Maryville and Washington universities to work with their physical and exercise therapy students.
It utilizes area swimming pools and gymnasiums as well as other venues including a Lindenwood University ice rink in Wentzville, St. Louis County Special School District and Ladue High facilities, and Hidden Valley Ski Resort in Wildwood.
Behlmann said all of this happened with “God’s grace, really. It was totally a dream, I got on the computer and pressed submit.” She said word of mouth contributed to its success.
“What we do is very natural; we grow as needed. If the kids and adults involved want to start a different program, then they start a different program,” she said. “We started out with playing wheelchair basketball in a parking lot, and then, we moved into a school gym. And one of those kids said ‘I’d love to swim,’ so we took them all to the pool the next week. It just has happened that way.”
There are other reasons cited for DASA’s success as Behlmann explained.
“One of our main focuses we push about DASA all the time is that we are a family,” she said. That’s helped in convincing parents to have their children participate. “It’s about this person being part of the DASA family, feeling good, feeling like they have ability.”
A child showing their abilities also helps parents. Behlmann said some parents, who have been told since day one that their child won’t do certain things, are surprised when their child can climb a wall – even though he or she has cerebral palsy or a spinal cord injury. It’s something they have never been educated about – what they can, rather than can’t, do, she said.
“The kids always think they have an ability,” Behlmann said. “It’s convincing the parents it’s OK to let them go, it’s OK to put them in a pool without a floatation device because they will learn to swim.”Don Cressler cites another reason for DASA’s success – Kelly Behlmann.
“She’s involved in all of it, she knows everybody, whether they belong to the organization or not,” said Cressler, a parent and long-time volunteer who teaches archery. “She gets things done.”
Cressler said he and his wife, Frances, met Behlmann 27 years ago when she was a therapist working with their son, Brian, who had been severely injured in an auto accident. “We brought him home and he didn’t do anything,” Cressler said.
Brian, now 45, got involved with a DASA archery program where he learned to hold arrows with his teeth and shoot with one arm and a mouth tab. He became a DASA archery competitor.
“I love Kelly,” Cressler said. “I love the organization. She’s got fabulous people and great volunteers. The volunteers often become coaches and assistants in teaching classes and sports activities.
“It’s awesome. You meet so many awesome kids, you meet so many awesome parents. The parents work basically as hard as the individuals involved in the sport.”
Tonja Zinn’s son, Evan, 14, has been involved in archery at DASA for three years and attends its summer camp. His right side is paralyzed from a stroke he had when he was 10 days old.
“As a parent, it’s hard to find things to put him in where he can function and get self-confidence and feel like he accomplishes things,” Zinn said. “It’s very rewarding to see them accomplish something they thought they would ever be able to do.”
Talent and triumph
DASA had fostered some exceptional athletes. Josh Pauls is one of them.
Pauls, 24, is a Paralympics gold medalist and the recipient of other international competition medals. He also is a star defenseman on DASA’s St. Louis Blues Sled Hockey Team and was named to the 2017-18 Team USA Sled Hockey Team.
Sled hockey is for players with a physical impairment in their lower bodies. Players use double-blade sleds instead of skates and two sticks to steer the sled and pass and shoot the puck.
Pauls began playing the sport when he was age 10 or 11 in New Jersey. He was born without tibia bones and his legs were amputated when he was 10 months old. He moved to the area to attend Lindenwood University with the idea of playing sled hockey for the university. That team didn’t materialize, so he joined DASA’s team.
He was first named to the national team in 2009. While the sport takes a lot of work and effort, Pauls isn’t anxious to give it up. “This is going to be part of my life until physically I’m not able to do it anymore,” he said.
His closeness with teammates, and that family atmosphere at DASA keep him there.
“It’s really the family aspect that Kelly fosters from the beginning and it continues and trickles down through the rest of the people who work and volunteer there and through the athletes as well,” Pauls said. “It makes you feel like you’re home.”
Thinking about tomorrow
It’s not part of the budget this year but Behlmann wants to expand services to Columbia, Missouri.
For the last four months, she’s been driving to Columbia to meet people and find a swimming pool. “A therapist we worked with moved to Columbia,” Behlmann said. “She said, ‘We need you here.’”
Behlmann said another dream is to somehow bring DASA services closer to the city of St. Louis, where they also are needed.
As long as there are athletes to train, Behlmann and her volunteers plan to be there to help.