Pensacola News Journal, By: Jamie Secola:
Hidden jewel SEASTARS Aquatics puts kids in pool
On Tuesday evening at the Salvation Army Community Center, 9-year-old Deiondre Robins was swimming alongside about a dozen other young athletes in a small three-lane pool.
He smiled as he swam in the indoor facility, tucked away in a Brownsville neighborhood off Pace Boulevard.
The SEASTARS Aquatics swim team is tucked away, too. Few know it exists. But what the nonprofit organization has accomplished is worth people's attention.
That isn't lost on Deiondre, who is one of the SEASTARS' 42 athletes who come from low-income families. Another 26 team members are physically or mentally challenged. In this tiny nook that would cause most members of the middle- and upper-class to scoff, Deiondre has found a second home.
"Swimming takes me places I've never been before," he said. "And when I'm mad, I can always come here and let the pain out."
SEASTARS, which was incorporated in 2004, gives economically, physically and mentally challenged youths a place to play, grow and succeed — something few of the swimmers would have otherwise.
It began with the vision of Robin and Chad Heller, the organization's founders. The two, who met in Tallahassee and later married, wanted to give minorities the opportunity to compete in swimming. In the end, the couple ended up doing much more than that.
"These kids have absolutely nothing," said Robin Heller, the president of SEASTARS and a Florida State University graduate. "It's amazing some of the things these kids have seen at 9, 10, 11 years old. They're things that I've never seen at 31."
The only requirement for athletes to be on the team is that they come from a family whose income is low enough that they had to be put on the free- or reduced-lunch program at school. Special-needs athletes don't have any financial requirements.
Membership is free.
"With SEASTARS, the whole idea was to try to get minorities into swimming, but we found that not all underprivileged people are black," Robin Heller said. "But this is the only swim team of its kind where all of the kids are on free- or reduced-lunches. We've had people who want to pay to be on the swim team, but we don't take any membership fees. It's all for the swimmers who are economically challenged.
"Typical swim teams are made up of all upper-class swimmers, and they usually cost an average of $2,000-$3,000 to have a kid on the team each year. There's no way that any of them would ever be able to afford that. So the idea is to open up the team to people who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to be on a team."
Will Rosasco and Clay Taylor, both 14, recently got to experience the world that SEASTARS can open up for kids. Last week, the two swimmers competed at the Southeastern LCM Swimming Championships in Nashville, Tenn. It was the first time any swimmers at SEASTARS had advanced that far in competition.
"It was pretty awesome," said Clay, a Workman Middle School student who competed in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke. "It was fun except me and Will were kind of freaking out because a lot of other swimmers there had been competing since they were 6 years old."
Clay started swimming about four years ago. Will joined him just last year. The competition was unlike any they had experienced — and not only because of the hundreds of fast-swimming athletes from Alabama, Tennessee and the Florida Panhandle.
The event was held at Nashville's Centennial Sportsplex, a $20 million facility with a 50-yard warm-up pool, an Olympic-size pool and stadium-style seating — worlds away from the Salvation Army's 25-yard pool.
But SEASTARS also offers underprivileged youth some unique opportunities that are closer to home.
"We've come a long way as far as a competitive swimming program, being able to take (Will and Clay to Nashville) and for them to see this isn't all they got," Heller said. "But we also do some community service projects with the kids, like we've demonstrated water safety at the Double Bridge Run. At the race, there were all kinds of members of the military there, and the kids were just running around getting autographs from the guys in the military because they had never seen a man in uniform before. Some of them had never seen Palafox Street."
That's why when Deiondre talks about his favorite experiences in SEASTARS, he first mentions the places it's taken him.
But that's not all it's given him. Through the program, Deiondre has found role models, friends and success.
"Well, one thing I like about swimming is that it's fun," he said. "I get to compete, and my family gets to see me. And plus, everybody who coaches here is great. We're all like family, really."
About the coaches
All SEASTARS Aquatics coaches are licensed through USA Swimming and have earned college degrees.
"I have a really great staff," said Robin Heller, the president of SEASTARS. "All of my staff have to be certified swim coaches through USA Swimming because we offer high-caliber swimming lessons and because we do work with a lot of special-needs kids."
Robin Heller file
n AGE: 31.
n OCCUPATION: President and co-founder of SEASTARS Aquatics.
n COLLEGE: Florida State University graduate; earned a degree in psychology with a minor in criminology.
n HIGH SCHOOL: Washington High.
n MORE: Heller grew up competing with the Greater Pensacola Aquatic Club and became captain of her high school swim team in 1997. Her husband is Chad Heller, who co-founded the organization but has taken on a more limited role with the group since becoming a charter boat fisherman last year.
SEASTARS Aquatics, Inc.
-- WHAT: A nonprofit swimming club that seeks "to promote and foster the success and growth of children who are economically, physically and mentally challenged" through competitive swimming.
-- WHO: 26 special-needs athletes and 42 economically challenged athletes.
-- COACH: President and treasurer of SEASTARS, Robin Heller, a Florida State University graduate.
-- WHERE: Salvation Army Community Center, 1501 N. Q St. in Pensacola.
-- INFO: www.seastarsaquatics.org.
Join the SEASTARS Aquatics group to learn more.