Where We Began

In April 2001, Vicki moved to Kingston, Ontario with her husband John Munro. Vicki‚Äôs dream was to develop a competitive swim program for children with physical impairments (para-sport) in an area that where very few opportunities where available for these kids. In fact, the eastern Ontario region was referred to as the “Black Hole” in para-sport by organisations based in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

To raise awareness for her goal, Vicki and her husband John decided that they would swim a 32-km tandem crossing of Lake Ontario. The successful swim helped raise some seed money to help develop the projects, but more importantly, it raised awareness. Vicki was contacted by a number of families who had children with physical impairments and were looking for a place to participate. All that was needed now was a facility.

The aquatics director at the YMCA of Kingston contacted Vicki at this point and said, “We can’t offer you money, but we would love to support you in some way. Could we offer you some pool time?”

With that offer, a swim team was born.

The team developed to 7 swimmers in the first year. 2 years later, the YMCA of Kingston had seen the amazing accomplishments of the children in the program, and the team was adopted by the Y and named the Kingston Y Penguins Aquatic Club. Today, the team averages 40 swimmers annually. Many of the children who joined the team as non-swimmers are now nationally and internationally ranked.

Vicki’s husband John Munro watched the work that Vicki was doing, and the amazing accomplishments of the young people. He decided that he wanted to do something to support Vicki’s program, so after a year of training, he swam across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to raise awareness for the program and funds for the team.

Y Knot Programs

“Picture the smile on the face of a young boy who is asked to join a competitive sports team, when, up to this point in life, his physical impairment has left him sitting on the sidelines on every playing field he has ever been on,” says Vicki Keith. “Kingston Y Penguins Swimming was created to help find a place for children like this, to participate and belong.”

As team member Jenna Lambert points out, being a part of Y Penguins has “helped me build self confidence, leadership skills and much, much more. I have learned to develop a strong work ethic, independence, patience, focus on others and goal setting. The YMCA’s programs have helped me to accept my disability. They have helped teach me that, just because I walk funny, that doesn’t make me less of a human being. To me, this realisation and the many other benefits that are associated with the YMCA programs, make my experience with them a life changing one.”

Since the inception of para-sport programs at the YMCA of Kingston, the young people participating have proved over and over again that because of their determination and dedication each and every one of them, will continue to accomplish what many people believe is impossible.”

The programs are punctuated by the laughter and fun that seem to define every YMCA program. Yet, in the midst of the giggles lie important life lessons, which children learn through the conduit of athletics.

“Competitive sport teaches skills on how to live a successful, productive, happy life. It helps young people develop a strong work ethic, organisational skills, and the importance of teamwork,” explains Vicki.

One of the most important aspects of Y Penguins Swimming is that the young people who participate, are completely accepting of other children with physical differences and physical impairments.

The team is a place where these children can immediately fit in. Their physical differences seem to disappear, and they are accepted for who they are. Kingston Y Penguins Swimming is a safe place, where, these children have found a place to belong, and a chance to be a part of a team. Now, for the first time in many of their young lives, they are free to explore and focus on their abilities, not their disability.

The most spectacular achievements are those that to many who live in an able-bodied world might seem mundane, until they know the full story.

Michael went out to play – an everyday occurrence for most children, but until joining the Kingston Y Penguins, something that wasn’t possible for Michael. When he joined the team, his confidence grew, his physical ability improved, and it became common to see Michael giggling, and rough housing with his peers in the pool.

Brian swam a length of the pool. Brian was born with Duchene’s Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that will slowly sap his strength, but in the pool he had the freedom to move independently. As he found walking harder and harder to do, and became more reliant on his wheelchair, his swimming got stronger, his confidence grew, and he continued to see possibilities in his future.

Kaitlyn wrapped a towel around Chad’s shoulders and sat with him to help keep him warm. A natural thing for a child to do, but if you are a child with a physical impairment, you are often perceived as the person in need of assistance. Seldom do these children have the opportunity to help others. On the Y Penguins, as in life, everybody has different abilities. The children often find opportunities to offer assistance. As the realisation develops in each child that they have something to give to others, their confidence and self esteem begin to grow, and a compassion and understanding for others is cultivated.

Sisters Natalie and Jenna headed off to swim practice together. A normal occurrence in many families, but something that was not possible for families with children with physical impairments in our area until the Y Penguins Swimming came into existence. Natalie and Jenna began to train together, compete with each other and participate in an experience that helped them grow as sisters and friends. Swimming became a passion that Natalie and Jenna shared. It was something that brought them closer, and allowed them to develop a healthy level of respect and admiration for each others abilities.

Eva ran a 1500 meter race at school. An admiral achievement for any 11 year old child! When Eva was born she weighed under a pound, and the doctors didn’t believe that she would be able to survive outside of the hospital environment. They explained to Eva’s parents that she would always be dependent and would be restricted to a wheelchair for mobility. Her parents believe that a major part of her success in developing independence, as well as her physical improvements was due to her participation on the Y Penguins.

When a child joins a sports team we know that as well as developing the skills and strategies of the game, that they will develop many life skills. This is doubly true for children with physical impairments. No matter how positive and supportive the parents are, a child with a physical impairment will always be aware that they are unable to do certain things that able-bodied children can do.

Take for instance one day the spring of 2001 when Eva’s mom Lorie, walked into Eva’s room to find Eva sitting on the floor crying, and pounding her legs as hard as she could with her fists. She looked up at her mom with tears streaming down her face and said “I just can’t make my legs do what I want them to do. Why won’t they work for me?” Her mother’s heart ached as she searched for the answer that might heal her daughter’s pain. Thankfully that was the same time that Vicki was developing the Y Penguins at the YMCA of Kingston.

Eva joined the team, learned how to swim, and became a world class athlete setting both the Canadian and Americas record in the 200 Breast stroke. Every athlete on the Y Penguins has an amazing story, each one has achieved new heights and are continuing to strive. So many of our athletes have achieved beyond their families wildest dreams, and they are just at the beginning of their journey. I think a quote from Eva as she jumped into the pool for the very first time embraces the attitude of each and every athlete as they continue to strive and succeed. “Watch out, here I come.”

The Y Penguins slogan is Penguins Can Fly. We believe nothing is impossible, and we know that this is true, because day after day, at the YMCA of Kingston these children are making what others deem impossible, possible.