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St. Charles North High School grad realizes dream of offering free swim lessons to children with autism

Program honors St. Charles girl who passed away at age 9 in 2014

ST. CHARLES – Children with autism or water sensory issues now have the opportunity to get swim lessons for free, thanks to the Sensory Cove swim program at the St. Charles Park District, which was the dream of Otter Cover Aquatic Park lifeguard and 2019 St. Charles North High School graduate Katie Cantrell.

According to a news release from the St. Charles Park District, the idea for Sensory Cove began last summer after Cantrell, also an Otter Cove swim team coach and instructor, worked with an autistic boy who had extreme water sensory issues.

At first he wouldn’t even dip his toes in the water but after much nurturing and care, Cantrell said by the end of the summer, the boy became more comfortable in the water, the release stated.

“I got this little boy to dunk his head and blow bubbles in the pool with me,” stated Cantrell in the release. “His mom cried tears of joy, and I knew then that there was a greater need for this type of programming.”

Cantrell worked with park district staff to make the program a reality and also secured funding to offer the lessons at no charge. According to the news release, not only does the program fulfill a need in the community, it is also honors her sister, Scout Cantrell, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 9 from complications from an asthma attack.

Like her big sister, Scout was a competitive swimmer and passionate about the sport. Through the For Scout Foundation, of which Katie is a director, swim lessons are already offered free to children in need of financial assistance. Providing Sensory Cove lessons at no charge is an extension of this mission and carries on Scout’s motto, “to make the world a little bit better place,” Cantrell stated.

When Cantrell presented her idea of Sensory Cove to staff, 12 lifeguards immediately signed up for the training, filling every spot. Thanks to Fox Valley Special Recreation and St. Charles Aquatics, lifeguards have been trained in technique and skills in working with children on the spectrum in the water, the release stated.

Cantrell also conducted her own research when developing the program, including interviewing families with autistic children to learn what tools and techniques worked well. Along the way she discovered the support kick boards Sensory Cove swimmers use during lessons.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for families,” stated Alex Weidner, Otter Cove supervisor, in the release. “It gives them hope that their children will have the opportunity to feel comfortable and safe in the water, and also grows their community of families in similar situations.”

Cantrell stated that it’s been her journey in life to carry on Scout’s legacy.

“To see every single child in the water and engaging with their instructors was just wonderful. Seeing it all come together made my heart full that these children were flourishing in Sensory Cove,” Cantrell stated. “Projects like Sensory Cove are most definitely making the world a little bit better place, and I hope she is smiling in Heaven. I think she is, especially on Sunday mornings at Sensory Cove.”

The second session begins July 14 and offers one-on-one instruction with a specially-trained lifeguard. Each session is four weeks and meets at Otter Cove on Sunday mornings for 30 minutes before the park opens to the public.

The lessons are available to children in grades K-6.

For more information about Sensory Cove, contact Weidner at 630-513-4391 or to register, visit

For more information about the For Scout Foundation, visit

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