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Pool makes a splash with positive results

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METLAKATLA, Alaska - Bedlam might be too strong of a description, yet as three dozen youngsters and teens frolic at the indoor pool of Metlakatla, Alaska, such an adjective wouldn't be too far from the mark.

Rock'n wave has quickly established itself as the Friday night activity since this past January at the newly re-opened Lepquinum Wellness Center in the state's only Native reserve. For the mere dollar entrance fee, the pool is opened for two hours as kids, teens and families bring out their water guns, floating devices and basketballs to splash around while Top-40 tunes blare in the background.

If the stimulation of free reign, albeit under the constant supervision of one lifeguard per 25 swimmers, provides the pool with an upbeat tempo, some of the buzz is the result of many of these kids jumping into the water for the first time. Closed since 1996, the building was used as a storage area for the school board until both the town's council and the regional health care provider, Annette Island Service Unit (AISU), pushed for the pool to be filled again with water and children's laughter.

Spearheading the fundraising effort to re-open the pool and the adjacent weight room was Rachael Askren, the service unit director for the AISU. She noted with Metlakatla's high joblessness since the depletion of the fish and timber industries coupled with the isolation of a 90-minute ferry ride to Ketchikan, the youth experienced a collective sense of despair in this town of about 1,400.

"At 87 percent (unemployment), the town council asked us to put a program together to enhance a sense of wellness and get back to healing," Askren said.

Respecting how few agencies could provide all of the money to back this project, Askren conducted a significant campaign to discover grants and programs that could assist. Under this mixed-funding approach, between state and Indian offices including help from both the arthritis and diabetes foundations, $300,000 was collected toward the renovations of the pool and its filtering system, new machines in the weight room and to maintain the expenses of operating the center at a cost of $10,000 per month.

The results of Lepquinum, translated meaning "our own," of providing a low-cost activity with daily fees of only two dollars, have already begun to pay dividends at a social level. Chairman for Metlakatla's Law and Order Committee is Solomon Atkinson, who has seen on a daily basis the change in attitude in such a short period of time.

Many in town cite a decline in crime since the pool opened and Atkinson backs up that collective statement with figures showing a 28 percent decrease in arrests. Quite simply, he says, when kids can release pent-up energy with physical activity, they become too tired to engage in destructive behavior.

"We're trying to furnish an alternative lifestyle and method of spending their free time," said Atkinson, who also works as a lifeguard. "With alcohol and drug use (a problem), we encourage them to get their bodies in shape."

While Rock'n wave, along with other designated times during the 80 hours a week the center is open, provides an avenue for the youth to blow off steam, Lepquinum's goal is to provide a site for everyone to increase their well-being. Mornings and early afternoons are predominantly used for aqua therapy and senior swimming and those hours are compatible as shown by a steady flow of participants entering when the doors open at 6 a.m.

Like other reserves experiencing a high rate of diabetes and the accompanying weight gain for those afflicted, exercising can become a difficult chore. The water provides a low-impact aerobic workout and is also ideal for those with limited mobility such as arthritis sufferers.

In the pool frequently is an AISU physical therapy aide, Tamara Guthrie. Besides a function of her job, Guthrie is able to soothe herself when she slips into her wetsuit. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two years ago at 25, she's able to draw inspiration from the elders in the community who regularly use the pool for conditioning.

"Sometimes I can't get out of bed but it's the patients that get me going and when I get to the pool, I'll be okay," said Guthrie.

She mentioned how the water acts as a floatation device and permits the use of the limbs which otherwise is difficult on land. One local who recently suffered a stroke has become a source of inspiration as he's able to move more freely when assisted by the pool.

"Land-based exercises are harder to do. In the pool, we have people jogging (that normally wouldn't) and that's great for cardiovascular," Guthrie pointed out adding a physical therapist commutes from Ketchikan three times a week to provide additional care for the patients.

Adjacent to the pool is the renovated weight room with more than 20 pieces of equipment. Though the music is conducive for a no pain-no gain attitude where hulking young men could dominate the scene, Atkinson stated it's not a bodybuilding facility. Again, he says, there are those in rehabilitation incorporating the machinery to obtain better circulation in their arms and legs.

In keeping with the concept of a wellness center and not just a pool, numerous posters are plastered on the wall encouraging proper diet and health maintenance. The center itself has engaged in practicing environmentally-friendly procedures regarding the cleansing of the water by eliminating the use of adding chlorine.

Instead of the harsh chemical, by the use of only common table salt, 50 pounds per week, the filtering system breaks down the crystals and distributes the natural and safer chloride (salt's chemical compound is NaCl, sodium chloride).

Lepquinum's certified pool and spa operator is Daniel M. Marsden, who changed jobs after an accident stopped his diving career. The table salt, plus some baking soda to regulate the water's alkalinity, is a significantly healthier method of purifying the pool. Instead of having to constantly monitor gauges and don a mask and helmet to add flammable chlorine, he says the new filtering system is ideal.

"A lot of pools are doing away with the chlorine. This is really self-sufficient and I can regulate the chlorine from the computer in the office," Marsden said.

With the summer season, the traffic at the center is starting to slow down a little, because there are more outdoor options available. Plans however are in place to develop a competitive swim team for Metlakatla's high school for next year and should that come to fruition, MHS would become the smallest school in Alaska to field a team.

Then, instead of just the raucousness of the pool on Friday nights, Lepquinum's bleachers can also become a bevy of boisterousness to cheer on Metlakatla's Chiefs.