Imagine being so afraid of water that even the gentle lapping of the tide at your feet while walking on the beach would be enough to scare you.
Maureen Burns has Cerebral Palsy. The condition causes altered muscle function, which in turn causes balance problems, making things like walking extremely challenging to negotiate. Before 2017, Maureen had never been swimming. She point-blank refused, terrified of the water taking what control she had over her balance. The closest she got to swimming was a bath.
So, how, in two months, did Maureen go from being afraid of water lapping her feet on the beach to swimming once a week with the team from FSG Australia’s (FSG) Nerang Hub.
“Even walking along the beach, Maureen wasn’t keen on the water touching her feet as it threw her off balance, so when Alyson from the FSG Australia (FSG) Nerang Hub presented the idea of Maureen attending swimming classes at the Southport pool I thought ‘This is going to be interesting!’” says Audrey, Maureen’s sister.
In order to do something we’re afraid of, it often takes someone we trust to convince us everything is going to be ok. This is exactly what Audrey believes led to Maureen getting in the pool during her first swimming class.
“The only way Maureen would have gotten in that pool is if she trusted you completely. I was shocked but so delighted when Alyson, the Hub Coordinator, sent me photos of her in the pool on the first day!”
The FSG Hub model is one in which customers, like Maureen, are given the choice about what activities they want to participate in during the week. Although self-driven choice is extremely important, it is not the reason why the model works in the way it does. Without a genuine and caring relationship between the FSG staff member and the customer, there is no trust. And with no trust, there is no getting in the pool!
“Since Maureen first connected with the Hub in June, Alyson and her have built up a really good relationship, so that’s probably why she went for it on the first day. She trusted that everything was going to be ok,” explains Cathy, the Nerang Hub Facilitator.
“The first time I took Maureen swimming she turned to me while we were in the pool and said “I’m not afraid of the water anymore!” It was one of those moments where you realise, we are changing people’s lives. For us swimming is no big deal but for Maureen that really was a life changing moment,” describes Alyson, Hub Coordinator.
Although getting in a swimming pool is an extremely big step for Maureen, it’s the physical and social benefits that are going to be the most positive outcomes long-term.
“Once Maureen experienced the weightlessness of being in the water, she must have felt a difference physically because a smile immediately appeared on her face. A lot of the customers who are involved in activities like this do it together and that’s why they keep coming back. The social aspect plays a big part in it. If you’ve ever been isolated from your community, having the option to access it again in this way…it’s hard to explain what the positive effects are from that,” says Cathy.
“I really like just hanging onto the rail and being weightless and free,” smiles Maureen.
Audrey agrees that the connections made through the Nerang Hub are a big part of why the model is so successful.
“The activities themselves are wonderful the way they’re customer driven and purposeful, but you notice things like change in attitude and general wellbeing when those social connections are made. The sunshine, the positive atmosphere of being at a busy pool, the swimming carnivals happening at the same time, the cheering, you feel like you’re involved in your community,” says Audrey.
Cathy describes the day from when the group arrives at the pool: “Once we’ve done the exercises we usually have lunch and a drink as a group at the café next to the pool. In winter, we have a fun fitness session at the Nerang Hub it’s a great alterative to swimming and also incorporates health and wellbeing.”
In the community sector, it’s often difficult to quantify the benefits of something like social inclusion or community involvement. A person’s general wellbeing and attitude are hard to measure. FSG believes in providing someone with the tools they need to live a independent and purposeful life. Building relationships and connections is crucial to ensure a life of meaning, fulfilment and joy. A life most would want for themselves.
“It’s important for our customers to build relationships because that builds confidence. Getting in the pool with Maureen, in an activity that may be a little scary, a little challenging, builds trust and develops a bond. You’re connecting with each other and hanging out. People forget that someone with a disability, especially someone from another country with a disability, may be extremely isolated compared to the majority of the community, and they’re not afforded the same social choices,” explains Cathy.
“Coming from Scotland, I was concerned how Maureen would adapt but she’s been amazing. The Activities she’s involved in really give her the chance to access her community,” says Audrey.
In a society where technology and modern comforts serve to increasingly isolate all of us from one another, it’s important to actively connect with those around us, for the health of our communities as a whole.
“Communities that enable all citizens to play a full and useful role in the social, economic and cultural life of their community are likely to be healthier than those where people face insecurity, exclusion and deprivation.” – The World Health Organisation.