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17 hours ago

PADLS ProgramIn the Swim - The Florida Helps
Foundation PADLS Program

There is no question about it; knowing how to swim is a big asset in our water-centric community. For years, the local Kiwanis Club has helped fund swimming lessons for all the children in our town. It cannot be understated how important this is, given the many drowning accidents reported across the state every year. In fact, of the entire country, the Sunshine State has the highest rate of drowning accidents involving children aged 5 and under (see FloridaHealth.org). Perhaps even more dire, accidental drowning is the number one leading cause of death in the nation among autistic and special needs children. Fortunately, there are Fort Myers Beach-based organizations like the Florida Helps Foundation (FH). The brainchild of Founder and Executive Director, Mike VonPlinsky, FH and its many volunteers, sponsors and donors, are working to help tackle this problem with a wonderful solution - the PADLS (Persons with Autism or Disabilities Learn to Swim) program.

In December of last year, the foundation was awarded a $23,000 "Family Services Grant" from the highly regarded autism science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks, to help with the development and management of the PADLS program right here in Southwest Florida.

After launching the initial awareness campaign about the PADLS program, and recruiting qualified water safety instructors, the group held its first "Autism Awareness Workshop.” At this event, qualified and experienced swim instructors, most of whom knew next to nothing about working with autistic and special needs behaviors, heard several guest speakers from the autism community. The next step was the selection of the swim instructors who would actually teach the children. The instruction phase began on June 20th this year with an 'Evaluation Day' to determine the level of comfort and swimming skills the children had. Of those who were evaluated, 14 children were chosen to be a part of the first swimming classes held in Cape Coral. The inaugural session began on July 24th and continued every Monday and Friday until just last week.

Mike says they are actively recruiting instructors for the PADLS program so that it can be expanded to other pool sites around the county, such as the Town's pool at Bay Oaks. PADLS will offer Water Safety Instructor training to help those interested in becoming certified and trained so that they can teach these important, life-saving skills to kids from all over the Southwest Florida region.

Florida Helps, as stated on their website, www.FLhelps.org, "is dedicated to supporting the development and growth of non-profit businesses and to raising funds for selected Florida charities.” Among those groups or events the foundation has helped locally - by offering help in the set-up, management, and execution of their events - are the annual PopeyePalooza Fests to benefit the FMB Soccer and Little League teams, local and regional clean water awareness events, as well as individual fundraising efforts for locals in need of help as they battle illnesses and catastrophes. As Mike "Popeye" Dearden, the eponymous organizer of the popular PopeyePalooza events says, "I can't tell you how beneficial Florida Helps has been for (our events).” If you have been to a fundraiser in our community to help raise money for staggering medical bills and other financial situations with which your friends and acquaintances may have needed help, chances are very good that Mike and the folks at Florida Helps were there to help support the organizers beforehand, or simply to volunteer at the events themselves. Their tag line is, after all, "We Help U to Help Others.”

VonPlinsky has a lifetime of military, corporate and volunteer experience putting his Penn State B.A. in Aerospace Engineering, his Air Force Institute of Technology M.A. in Astronautical Engineering, his Penn State MBA, and his Miami-Dade College degree in Non-Profit Management to work.

Captain Michael VonPlinsky retired from the Air Force in 1981, and went on to work as a civilian for the Department of Defense for 25 years. In 2004, Mike bought the popular beach bar, The Shamrock Pub, but sold that by 2009. He also has a business consulting firm - BizOlutions, offering help with business plans, marketing plans, start-ups and grant and proposal writing. By 2014, Mike was ready to kick the Florida Helps Foundation up a few notches, and has inspired many to get involved in helping others.

Mike's enthusiasm for Florida Helps, its PADLS program, and the many events and fundraisers his organization has fostered and sponsored, is contagious. It is clear he is dedicated to this work.

"I always had plans to get into volunteerism and philanthropy later in life. And after a less-than-overwhelming experience working for another foundation and donating raised funds to other programs where we had little to no control over their disposition, I was very motivated to set up my own foundation and start a program where we had direct influence on improving lives," Mike says. And it turns out the education, background and experience he brings to the table serve him well, or as he puts it, "make me ideally suited to this 'calling'." But there is an even more personal reason for this ‘calling’which greatly influenced his creation of the PADLS program. "(My) research revealed a very important yet severely under-serviced need - drowning prevention through water safety... I've got a special needs brother and an autistic nephew."

Jo List

For more information about the Florida Helps Foundation, the PADLS program, and sponsorship and volunteer opportunities, go to www.FLhelps.org or the FLhelps Facebook page.