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“Being part of the Surf Life Saving movement, it’s our duty to be doing something about this.”

These are the words of Denny Rowland – the Wanda SLSC club captain pioneering a program dedicated to teaching children of all abilities to be beach safe.

Now in its fourth year, the Red Fins Nippers program seeks to establish a safe environment for children with disabilities to learn basic aquatic safety.

It has grown in support steadily each year, with registered children more than doubling in number each of the first three years.

Denny was recently named the Westfield Local Hero for the month for his efforts in developing the program, but was quick to deflect the attention back to the kids.

“The challenge is for the kids to be able to participate – Nippers is competitive, it’s about building athletes and lifesavers, which is important,” Denny said.

“But these kids who have disabilities just want to be able to do the things that other kids do, and they need extra support for that. Maybe they need more breaks, maybe they need access assistance, maybe they need better equipment more suited to their needs.

“It’s really just been a learning experience, but the core of our program is about removing barriers and helping kids and families to participate in the movement.”

Indeed, what started from humble roots four years ago has now blossomed into a program that can be the model for others like it across the state.

It started, like many do, with enthusiasm and drive – qualities Denny fosters from a place of love. His two children live with autism, and it was important to him that they grow up with the same access to surf safety education as those participating in traditional Nippers programs.

“We struggled at Nippers, but at the same time my kids learning to swim and stay safe in the surf was important to me,” Denny continued.

“I started looking into what we could do about it, and I saw some really horrifying statistics – the worst of which was that for children with autism under 14, it’s the leading cause of death (drowning).

“So when you have two children who have autism it suddenly becomes something where you’re fighting for their life and to keep them safe around the water.

“That challenged me as a person, it was that deep, I’ve got to do something about this and if I don’t, I’m not the person I thought I was.”

However, over time it became far bigger than that. In completing his research, Denny found that there were many kids who couldn’t participate in Nippers due to physical, visual, hearing and cognitive impairment, and decided to create an all-encompassing program that catered to all abilities.

With greater flexibility, too, now in what role you can play as a volunteer on the beach, beyond simply being a lifesaver, means children participating in the program also have pathways to remain involved in the club long term.

“It’s very rewarding to see the kids out there participating and being accepted as just another kid on the beach,” Denny said.

“We try to foster a one club atmosphere at Wanda where seniors and juniors compete and train together – that’s what I want for Surf Life Saving as well.”

Thursday 23 December 2021