When Beth Scruggs, an avid swimmer, was asked to help a child with Down Syndrome improve her swimming skills in order to compete in the Special Olympics, she was glad to help. But she didn’t stop there. Today, the Nashville Dolphins, an organization she started in 2003, has over 215 participants.
“The leading cause of death for people with special needs is drowning, so it's really important for them to learn how to swim,” said Brenda Vroon, Program Director and Head Swim Coach.
Brenda got involved with the Nashville Dolphins about 10 years ago. She is a physical education teacher and also the Wildwood Gators swim coach. The Gators, which has some swimmers with Down Syndrome, hold Swim-A-Thons to raise money for the Dolphins. During these Swim-A-Thons, swimmers ask family members, friends, and neighbors for pledges, and depending on how many laps they do, money is raised to support the Nashville Dolphins.
According to Brenda, there are no other programs like it in the country. Whereas most programs for people with disabilities end when they turn 18, no one ages out of the Dolphins. Right now, the youngest child is only 2 and the oldest is 52. The person who Beth initially helped all those years ago is still in the program.
Brenda said she is always surprised when parents tell her that no one is willing to teach their children with disabilities how to swim. Swimming is not only a life-long sport, and one that will keep them safe, but it’s also great exercise. In addition, the Nashville Dolphins programs provide a peer group where people with disabilities can feel like they are a part of something.
“It's really nice for kids to get out there and be with others like themselves and have that camaraderie,” said Brenda.
Their mission is to provide those with special needs the physical and emotional benefits of swimming. They accept people of all ages, abilities, and financial backgrounds, and participation in the Nashville Dolphins is completely free. They will even purchase a swimsuit for a participant, if necessary.
“Parents of special needs children have so many costs, from medical bills to therapy programs,” said Brenda. “Our program is totally free. We never have charged, and we never will charge. That’s part of our mission - to provide free swim lessons.”
They have about 65 swimmers on their Dolphin Swim Team, while most of the other swimmers are in the Junior Dolphins. There is also a “learn to swim” program called Future Dolphins.
The ultimate goal, said Brenda, is for most of the swimmers to get to the point where they will be on the Dolphin Swim Team. Some of these swimmers go on to compete in Special Olympic competitions. There are some members with serious disabilities who will not be able to reach that goal; however, they never have to leave the program.
“People love it. They love the friendships, they love the volunteers, and they develop great bonds and learn teamwork,” she said.
Brenda said there aren’t any disabilities that would preclude someone from taking part in the Nashville Dolphin’s programs. Participants include people in wheelchairs, those who are blind or deaf, and others with a variety of disabilities. Some have prior swimming skills while others are absolute beginners.
Since they don’t have their own facility, their greatest challenge is finding pool space. Because of this, they do have a wait list, so unfortunately not everyone who wants to take part can do so. If they had more pool space, she said, they would be able to accept more people.
“We have been trying to raise capital to build a pool, which would be life changing, but right now we are in many indoor pools throughout the community,” said Brenda.
Some of these include the Gordon Jewish Community Center, Ensworth High School, the University School of Nashville, and the Centennial Sportsplex.
“Wherever people will give us pool space, that’s where we go,” said Brenda.
While their ultimate goal is to be able to build their own indoor pool facility, for now they would really like to get people off their wait lists and into the water. Swimming is what they’re all about.
“It’s sad that we have so many people on our wait list. We are open to any size indoor pool,” she said.
The Nashville Dolphins holds many fundraisers throughout the year. Their Boots and Bubbles fundraiser, which is a big crawfish boil, is usually held in May or June. This year, because of COVID-19, they had to get creative and do a drive-through event with live music and punch. It was a great success, and they ended up cooking over 2100 pounds of crawfish. They also hold a mum sale in September, and host an event called Soundwaves and Sweethearts every February. It’s a big party with a band, with liquor that is usually donated. Brenda said it’s a really fun event, and guests really enjoy themselves.
In the past couple of years, swim teams in Williamson County and the National Swim League have jumped on the Wildwood fundraising bandwagon and have done their own Swim-a-Thons to raise money for the Dolphins. This summer, four swim teams are taking part.
In addition, the Nashville Dolphins recently participated in a fundraiser called the Big Payback. It’s a huge fundraiser for Middle Tennessee where different nonprofits try to raise money.
“Because we felt like we had to give back to Nashville, we just presented a check to The Store, which is a free grocery store started by Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams- Paisley in Belmont,” said Brenda. “We gave them half of our ticket sales and presented a check for $8700.00.”
The National Dolphins is staffed by over 150 volunteers, who come from all over the state. Volunteers don't have to have any swimming background, and they need people both in and out of the water. If people are interested in volunteering, they can go to their website http://nashvilledolphins.org/ and fill out the application. There is even a video showing what volunteers can expect.
“We have lead instructors who help the volunteers, so they just have to have a willing spirit and an open mind,” said Brenda.
If an organization has an indoor pool and would like to donate space, please reach out to the Nashville Dolphins by phone at 615-866-9971, by e-mail at email@example.com, or on their website at http://nashvilledolphins.org/. Or, if a corporation or individual would like to donate funds, please click the “Donate” button located on their website. Since members never age out, the financial needs continue to grow every year. Besides the website, information and personal stories about the Nashville Dolphins can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.
“There are so many things that this program does, and I wish more people knew about it,” said Brenda.
Pull quote: “The leading cause of death for people with special needs is drowning, so it's really important for them to learn how to swim.”