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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Lifeguards Make the Day For Those with Down Syndrome

A lifeguard helps a bather ride a paddleboard at the 10th annual Beach Day hosted by Wildwood Beach Patrol and 21 DOWN July 16.

By Taylor Henry

WILDWOOD – Ten years ago, half a dozen area families with children who have Down syndrome spent a day at the Wildwood beach, supervised by several lifeguards.
That excursion grew into an annual beach day that, this year, had about 225 bathers from nearly 50 families. The bathers with Down syndrome ranged in age from a few years to over 40 years old.
“When you have a special needs child, sometimes it’s hard to find something they can really feel comfortable at,” said Pat Dingley of Wildwood Crest, mother of 28-year-old Melissa. “They’re used to judging themselves against typical kids, and here, they can do whatever. They can swim, they can have fun. No judgment.”
Beach Patrol member Bill Auty came up with the idea to provide a beach day for children and adults with Down syndrome a decade ago. Part of that idea was providing extra attention from lifeguards.
“Their parents appreciate a day that they can do a little more and they’re not as nervous,” said Lauren Auty, a volunteer with Down syndrome awareness group 21 DOWN. “They have more eyes on their children.”
During the 10th annual Beach Day July 16, Wildwood lifeguards coached people with Down syndrome to ride waves and splash and play in the water.
“The lifeguards are amazing,” said Dingley, who has attended Beach Day with Melissa the past five years. “They are so excited, they’re thrilled to be here and they make it such a fun day for everybody.”
In 2008, Bill Auty reached out to 21 DOWN with the idea of Beach Day. The awareness group hosts social events for people with Down syndrome from Cape May and Atlantic counties.
“He just loves the kids,” said 21 DOWN Vice President Jill Patro. “He said, ‘Why don’t we get the kids together, we’ll get some guards,’ and it just grew from there.”
Auty and his wife Lauren don’t have children with Down syndrome, but Lauren started volunteering with 21 DOWN that year.
“It brings families together who have kids with Down syndrome and maybe don’t know what to expect,” Lauren Auty said.
Families traveled from as far as Pennsylvania, Auty said.
“Besides the Buddy Walk (an annual walkathon on the Ocean City Boardwalk), this is probably our second biggest event,” Patro said.
The day began with a seaside yoga session hosted by lifeguards, a first for Beach Day, Patro said. After yoga, many bathers jumped into the water to try riding soft-top paddleboards, and others hung out on the sand.
“Some of them are a little more socially uncomfortable than others,” Lauren Auty said. “Sometimes they don’t want to get in the water, they don’t want to be touched, but they will just play ball with some of these guys, or just dig a hole.”
Umbrellas for families were lent by a beach supplies renter, pizza was provided by the Hot Spot and sandwiches were made by the Russo family, she said.
Patro said Beach Day was for families of individuals with Down syndrome as much as it was for the individuals themselves.
“When you have a sibling with special needs, it’s kind of their own little group,” she said. “They get to meet other kids who have a sibling with special needs, so it’s really nice for them to get together.”
Patro said she thinks the lifeguards had as much fun as the bathers.
“They look at these guards like they’re celebrities,” Lauren Auty said. “They’ll take them out on these boards, and take them a little further than maybe their parents can take them.”
To contact Taylor Henry, email thenry@cmcherald.com.

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