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Posted on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Kids do their part: Dexter swimathon one way students are supporting tornado victims

By Janet Miller


From left, Dexter Community Aquatic Club swimmers Morgan Marsh, 7, and Elizabeth Higgins, 8, take part in the swimathon on March 28.

Courtesy photo

When the 60 to 70 members of the Dexter Community Aquatic Club showed up at Wylie Elementary on March 15, they thought they would swim one of the final meets of the season.

Instead, it turned into an evening spent huddled in the school’s locker rooms, lights flashing, rain pounding like a mallet on the roof of the pool and wondering what was happening outside the cinder block walls of the school.

While the meet was canceled that night after the tornado ripped through the Dexter community, leveling homes but taking no lives, it has become a chance for the swimmers to give back to the community that has supported it. It’s also a way to show support to the 10 or more club families whose houses were damaged or leveled by the twister, said Dave Gendernalik, head coach.

The club held a swimathon March 28 to raise funds for the Dexter Relief Fund, established by LaFontaine Automotive Group and Chelsea State Bank to help victims of the tornado. The fund has already raised more than $110,000. Go to for information about the fund.

For most of the swimmers, it was the first time they returned to the pool since the tornado touched down a quarter-mile away. “Some of them are worried about coming back to the pool. For some of the very young kids, it was a pretty traumatic experience,” Gendernalik said prior to the event. “We’re going to turn it into a fun experience with music going and pizza and show them it’s a safe place to be.” Club members range in age from 5 to 18.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on March 15, swimmers from the Dexter club were dressed in their suits ready to enter the water to warm up. Parents were busy writing each swimmer’s events on their hands in Sharpie marker so they wouldn’t forget. Adults were putting the touch pads in place in the pool. Swimmers were standing on the pool deck.

Then the siren sounded. Boys and girls divided into two groups and were taken into the locker rooms. It was just another siren and most everyone thought the meet would soon continue.

Swimmer Jackson Helmholtz knew exactly what to do: “I sat in a corner with my hands held over my head,” he said. But the minutes turned to an hour and a half, and the swimmers found ways to keep themselves busy. Jackson played Cowboys, a game similar to Rock, Paper, Scissors. The food and water parents had brought for the meet was handed out. They had their books and iPods and video games. And, of course, rumors made the rounds.

“We kept hearing bits and pieces,” said Eric Stanczyk, assistant coach. “We heard a tornado touched down 10 miles south of us, but there wasn’t a lot of information. “ Jackson heard other news. “There was a rumor that is wasn’t a real tornado,” he said.

“We’re teaching them to be good swimmers,” Gendernalik said. “But it’s just as important to teach them to be good members of the community.”

As the families affected clear the rubble and begin to rebuild, the swimmers want to help, said Susan Farrell, a board member of the swim club. “When you’re 8 years old, you really can’t get out there a haul logs away. The swimathon makes the kids feel like they’re giving something back to the community”



Wed, Apr 4, 2012 : 6:32 p.m.

Splendid, children learning from their parents on helping people in a disaster; that's the way to build a strong bonded community.

Dog Guy

Wed, Apr 4, 2012 : 3:59 p.m.

Dexter does it up better.