Y celebrates long-time volunteer Lois Simone

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 22, 2012

By Katie Scarvey
When Lois Simone was 60 years old, she began volunteering at the YMCA, helping with the Y’s swim program for special needs students.
That was back in 1980, and no one could have predicted then she would continue to serve the program for more than 30 years.
“It’s just amazing,” says Kathy Eagle, who has worked as a volunteer with Lois for the past five years.
“When we first moved here, about 30 years ago, I remember going to the Y and I met Lois there. She was already volunteering at the time.
“I thought, that’s something I’d look forward to doing when I retire.”
When Eagle did retire and began volunteering at the J.F. Hurley Family Y, the first person she saw was Lois.
“I couldn’t believe she was still doing it, 25 years later,” Eagle said.
Eagle and Simone have spent Mondays and Wednesday mornings together during the school year, helping special needs children, from kindergarten to high school, to swim or simply to feel comfortable and be safe in the water.
At 91, Simone has recently had to give up the volunteer role she has so immersed herself in, and the J.F. Hurley YMCA is holding a reception at 4 p.m., Wednesday, April 25, to celebrate her many years of service.
“When I turned 90, I knew it would happen,” Simone said. “But I didn’t know when.”
Once she’s in the pool she’s fine, she says, but these days she has difficulty in getting there.
Although she hasn’t been out of the pool for very long, she already misses the children. “The children are wonderful,” she says. “They are precious.”
And Simone is pretty wonderful herself.
Karen De Graaf, a special education teacher at Salisbury High, has known Simone for 28 years, she believes.
“I think she’s a saint,” De Graaf says. “She was consistently there, working with those kids, encouraging them.
“It’s amazing to watch, to see kids who were fearful of even putting their toe in who are now swimming because of Lois.
“She’s wonderful, and we need to say thank you.”
Eagle echoes those sentiments about Simone.
“I call her superwoman,” Eagle says. “This is the kind of person you can’t ever replace, that just comes along once in a lifetime. She’s had plenty of health problems but just bounces right back. It’s just amazing what she’s been able to accomplish. She’s phenomenal; she’s like the Energizer bunny.”
“She knows the kids; she’s known them since they were in kindergarten,” Eagle says. “She can look at a kid and tell you if he’s going to be fearful of water or going to be a fish.”
“I have watched so many of the children grow up,” Simone says. “Each child is different.”
But the essential part of her approach has been the same.
“You do what they are happiest doing,” she says, whether that’s simply walking around in the water or floating on their backs.
She has fond memories of the children, including one boy and girl who ended up getting married and having a daughter, who was also in one of Simone’s classes.
One boy was confined to a wheelchair, and Simone recalls getting him in the pool and getting him “walking” on the bottom of the pool.
Another boy she taught was blind. “When we finally got him to swim alone, I would have him swim the length of the pool with voice instructions, move right or left.
“Each child was different and could accomplish different things.”
During the years at the old Y, there wasn’t enough space for Special Olympics activities, Simone says. They would take the children to the large Catawba College pool or the pool at the South Y.
Simone says that over the years she has worked primarily with non-swimmers. “Some children are not able to learn, so we just keep repeating the same instructions for years.
“Others will scream and hang on for a few times and then just take off moving in the water. Then there are others like ‘Bo’ who was unable to move at all but loved to be in the water.”
The most fun, Simone says, is watching the Special Olympics.
“All year we work to make them swim better, but most like to fool around. However, at Special Olympics, they hear the whistle and off they go, as fast as they can go. I am proud of each and every one of them.”
Eagle notes that Simone has an amazing intuitive sense of each child’s needs and abilities.
“All the kids wear little float belts,” Eagle said. “She can tell you how many they need, where they need to be placed. She just knows from working with them the past 30 years.”
When asked how you approach a child who fears the water, Simone says simply, “You hug them.”
That means holding a child in the water and working until he or she is comfortable.
She recalls one boy she held for three or four months. One day, he swam to the lifeguard station she said. And then he never stopped swimming.
Simone was born in Stamford, Conn. She came to know North Carolina when she was in college — two years at Mars Hill and four at Woman’s College of North Carolina — which is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
As a young woman, she worked as a dietician in Boston and New York City and Stamford.
She got married and raised a family, and after her children had left for college, she began swimming regularly twice a week. When her husband retired in 1978, they decided to move to North Carolina to be near their daughter Lynn and her husband, Richard Miller.
Shortly after they arrived, her husband died following an operation.
“A new life began for me,” says Simone, who notes that she really didn’t know anyone in Salisbury other than her daughter.
“The people of Salisbury were so gracious to me and were very sweet,” she says.
In 1979, she began swimming at the Salisbury YMCA.
She learned of a class through Linda Rusher (now Bost) and asked if she could help. She began working with the special needs children in 1980. She worked with Rusher, then later Jean Morgan and Michael Reynolds and Linda Broadway — and many others. She says she has no idea of how many children she’s taught — but it’s a lot.
The Y is always looking for volunteers for its swimming program that serves special needs students. Call the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA at 704-636-0111 for details.