'Arc Tank' competition sparks innovative programs for kids with disabilities, autism

A group dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities and autism across Massachusetts is giving money away to get some good ideas off the ground.

The Northeast ARC has developed a program called the "ARC Tank," based on the popular TV show, "Shark Tank," which requires entrepreneurs to pitch their concepts before a panel of experts.

One of the recent winners of the "ARC Tank" was the North Shore YMCA, for Water Wise, a swimming program developed for children with intellectual disabilities and autism.

Jean McCartin, the Y’s director of inclusion, developed the curriculum. Not only is there a low ratio of swimmers to teachers during pool time, but there is also instruction using pictures and play to help reinforce safety around water. McCartin says this type of training can be lifesaving for children on the autism spectrum or with an intellectual disability. "The drowning rates for those children are the number one cause of death."

Leah Sarjou, a Beverly mother, is very happy her 5-year-old son Matthew is learning how to swim, and more importantly, to be safe around water.  "It’s a joy to watch in him in the water, learning and understanding what’s needed of him."

Three years ago, McCartin pitched her idea to "ARC Tank" and was able to get a $30,000 grant.

"The winners get money.  They submit and compete for the amount of money that they need for the next part of their project," explained Jo Ann Simons, the president and CEO of the Northeast ARC.

After receiving a $1 million grant several years ago, Simons said they decided to try this approach to solicit new ideas to help their clientele. "We encourage entrepreneurs and big thinkers to look at the opportunity of the "ARC Tank" and apply." Applications are being accepted until Oct. 4 for the next competition.

Water Wise is now available at two YMCA’s on the North Shore and should be offered at two more later this fall.  McCartin hopes this is just the beginning.

"We are also working with the Y of the USA right now, and are part of a pilot program with them to create a swim academy for children with diverse-abilities ... We started this here in Massachusetts.  We are hoping to roll this out across the country, and that's pretty exciting to me," she said.

"It would be pretty remarkable that this project could actually have saved a life," added Simons, "And is there anything more remarkable than being able to save a life?"