Thursday, December 09, 2010

Christmas angels get water wings

(The following was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 17, 2006.)

Pardon me for being blunt, but part of the little boy’s brain was missing.
I mean, I can only surmise that condition because of the shape of his skull — concave on the right, like a grassy hillside where the earth below has been eroded and the surface collapses into the new shape.

He was happy, and he told me so, in words as well as the grin that spread across his face. Floating in the swimming pool at Gulf Coast Community College, the child splashed and kicked with the help of a man who supported him in the water.

And he was surrounded by other disabled children, who squealed and giggled with the adults who helped them enjoy the college pool. They tossed balls and brightly colored noodles and splashed water in each other’s faces.

I looked and saw. I listened and heard. I felt it in the center of my chest.

This was a happy place and time, where kids felt released from the limitations with which they’d been born or into which circumstance had rendered them. For an hour last Wednesday, they were free.

The children had entered the natatorium confined to wheelchairs or walking with the aid of teachers, parents and volunteers. They soon were liberated from the bonds of gravity, buoyed by the warm water and the full attention of their helpers. Lifeguards stood by just in case.

The noise of laughter, shouts of joy and splashing built to a roar. I asked people to step outside for interviews because of the cacophony. Outside the building, a grown man tried not to cry when he talked about the importance of this day. I understood what he was saying, even when words failed.

For 15 years, the college has hosted an annual Christmas swimming party for disabled students from Springfield Elementary School. I hadn’t been here in a while, as my duties changed over the years, and I was glad to have returned.

I first covered the event in 1995, its fourth year. GCCC President Bob McSpadden had to sit out the fun that year because of surgery on his arm. This year, as McSpadden faces his upcoming retirement, it was a leg problem that kept him out of the pool. Most Christmases, you could find him in the middle of it.

“This is when Christmas really starts for us,” McSpadden said that first time I visited. “This is what sets the mood.”

For about 20 children — and as many adults — Wednesday’s party set a mood of comfort and joy.

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