Cantrell teams with St. Charles Park District to help autistic children

Admittedly, I don't cover a lot of high school swimming.

It isn't that I don't enjoy it - I've covered my share of state meets and sectional competitions throughout the years and have met a number of outstanding athletes, coaches and parents who have helped make St. Charles one of the destination places for families searching for high-quality programs - both at St. Charles East and St. Charles North.

I'm not a particularly strong swimmer - if you want proof, just ask my wife about our snorkeling adventure in Bermuda during our honeymoon years ago.

You could say I often feel like a fish out of water so to speak when I'm at a swim meet.

I cover the action to the best of my ability and hope my stories reflect some sort of knowledge of the sport.

A couple weeks ago, Fox Valley Prep Sports Editor John Lemon assigned me to the annual dual meet between cross-town rivals St. Charles East and St. Charles North.

A few hours later, I walked out of the North Stars' aquatic center with a renewed sense of humility, respect and gratefulness.

While the North Stars won the meet, 108-78, that wasn't the main story.

The two teams raised a total of $5,400 toward the For Scout Foundation, which was created by the Cantrell family (Tony, Felicity and older sister Katie) five years ago to honor the life and legacy of their beloved daughter and sister, Scout, who passed away in October of 2014 following complications from an asthma attack at the age of 9.

According to the For Scout Foundation website, Scout was a competitive member of the St. Charles Swim Team, excelling in the butterfly event.

Since 2014, the For Scout Foundation has raised more than $245,000.

The Foundation was established to provide charitable grants and financial support to organizations that carry on Scout's legacy.

Katie Cantrell is certainly doing her part to carry on that legacy.

Two summers ago, Katie taught swim lessons to a 4-year-old boy on the autism spectrum at Otter Cove Aquatic Park in St. Charles.

"He was nonverbal and he wasn't excited about learning how to swim," she said. "He was crying and screaming."

"He was terrified at first," admitted Katie's mom. "But by the end of the summer, she had him blowing bubbles and dunking his head and kicking in the water. His mom cried tears of joy."

What Katie referred to as a "transformational experience" sparked a bigger plan.

"She came to us (parents) saying, 'there has to be more kids like this around the area,'" said Felicity.

"I talked with my mom about possibly pairing it with the For Scout Foundation," said Katie. "It was something that Scout would have wanted because she always included everyone."

After a great deal of research and discussions with families raising autistic children, Katie learned that there were few learn-to-swim opportunities for the kids.

"There was one program offered in Chicago and another in Rockford," she said. "But they were cost inhibitive and the waiting list in Rockford was two years out. I realized there was such a need and urgency for a program like this in St. Charles."

Working with St. Charles Park District staff, Katie helped create the Sensory Cove swim program at Otter Cove.

Last summer, the program began its second year with 32 families participating - free of charge.

All of the instructors/lifeguards attended training sessions prior to the summer lessons that were held on Sunday mornings prior to the opening of the pool to the general public.

"Last summer, we had two 8-week sessions at 9 and 10 a.m. with 15 kids each," said Katie, who graduated from St. Charles North last June after a successful 4-year high school swimming career. "We offer one on one private instruction with no distractions."

Incorporating visual clipboards with Velcro strips, the swim instructors worked with the autistic children ranging from kindergarten to 7th grade.

"Each of the instructors had 56 visual cue cards," said Katie, who also praised Alex Weidner, Otter Cove Supervisor. "Our instructors are phenomenal and have been an immeasurable part of this. They've all volunteered."

Still in its infancy, Sensory Cove has been a resounding success.

"We've received a lot of positive feedback," said Katie, who is preparing to start her collegiate swim season next month at Middlebury College in Vermont. "We'd like to offer lessons at both Otter Cove and Swanson Pool next summer and my hope is to expand it to other suburban park districts.

"It's life changing."

In a couple weeks, Katie will return home for a well-deserved honor by the Illinois Association of Park Districts at the Best of the Best Awards Gala.

"I didn't do this for the recognition," said Katie. "I wanted to help the community. I'm proud of the St. Charles Park District - they did this (Sensory Cove) with open arms.

"When Scout passed away, the community did everything for our family. Now it's my turn to give back."

You can reach Craig Brueske at

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