Story by Courtney Murray, Photos Provided by Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation
When the Emerald Coast YMCA closed, two long time members of the local swimming community saw a need in the area for these facilities to continue. Pam Braseth and her family are lovers of all things water and sports. Pam has coached the Fort Walton Beach H.S. Swim Team, formed the Liza Jackson Prep School Swim Team, and she was a long-time coach of the Bluewater Barracudas. Additionally, she and her husband, Bruce, operated Dragon Sports, which supported many of the athletes in this area who swim, bike and run. They have also been very involved with the DemoMan Triathlon and the annual EOD Wounded Warriors Ride event. Gary and Kathi Heapy have coached the Meigs Middle School Swim Team for the past 10 years. Gary is a USA Swimming official who runs meets all over our area and Kathi helps with coaching Coast Aquatics and Choctaw High School. The Braseth and Heapy families decided to fill the void in the community and formed the Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation (ECFF) in January, 2015. Both couples have had their children involved in swimming over the years and the ECFF has been able to bring the love of swimming to many more youth by hosting middle school, high school and Coast Aquatics meets and practices in addition to also hosting the Special Olympics Regional swim meet last summer.
Re-opening the Destin Aquatic Center has been a long process that requires a lot of selfless giving from the community. The ECFF follows a model of asking for donations to fund the expenses of repairing and reopening the facility without incurring any debt. “When money comes in, it is spent on needed items in the order of importance and affordability,” described Kathi, “We have taken in $50,000 in cash and in-kind support so far, which has allowed us to pay the rent and security deposit, buy insurance, begin improvements on the pool pumps and get painting underway.” This project is truly a labor of love for these two determined families. Kathi said, “Because of our involvement with swimming going back over 30 years in this community, we felt that we could be the nexus for a movement to revitalize the pools and operate them in ways that would better serve the community and be self-sufficient.”
Interview with Kathi Heapy, ECFF co-Founder and Treasurer
VIP Destin Magazine: What is the biggest moment that has stood out in the last year?
KH: There have been many special experiences, but I think the highlight for us was hosting the First Anniversary “Weekend at Bernie’s” Masters Swim meet on Dec. 10, 2016, at the Bernie R. Lefebvre Aquatic Center in Ft. Walton Beach to celebrate our very successful first year of operations at the pool, which we refer to as “The Bernie”. It was the first-ever U.S. Masters Swimming Meet held in Okaloosa County. We hosted about 50 athletes aged 19-82 from Mobile, Pensacola, Panama City, Troy, and many of our local masters, who have enjoyed being able to train again since the pool was reopened. Some of them had never been in a swim meet before while others were trying to recapture “the good old days”. We all had great fun, friendly competition, and inspiring support from our teammates, friends and families.
VIP: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
KH: Seeing people swim – kids and adults who are learning to swim; handicapped individuals who can finally exercise without pain; young athletes who are participating in the sport and achieving their goals; families who come and play together, and people who are just happy to be in the pool.
VIP: What plans does Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation have for the future?
KH: Repairing, replastering, and reopening both pools at the Destin Aquatic Center, adding shade and spectator seating to the pool deck, constructing an enclosure over the recreational pool to facilitate year-round usage, repair and revitalize the fitness trail around the perimeter of the property; and hopefully add beach volleyball and pickleball courts, and very ultimately, construct a 50-meter pool with a diving well on the property. We want to host swim meets, summer teams, summer camp swimmers, aquacizers, fitness lap swimmers, first-responders (including lifeguards) who need swim training, and many other things.
VIP: What have been some obstacles you’ve faced as an organization and some of your triumphs so far?
KH: Time was a huge obstacle. We had to wait for a lot of things that were out of our control to happen before we could obtain the lease. During that time (2 years), there was deterioration of the pools and the pump and filter equipment, so we will have to spend more to repair things than we would have if we could have started two years ago. It was a triumph just to obtain the lease, pay the annual rent and get keys to the facility. On January 21, we had about 100 people come and volunteer to clean up the facility – the weeds, debris, etc. – and they got it done in one day. We have also been able to secure an extremely generous donation from Rhino-Shield Paint and Coatings in Destin so that the facility will soon be painted in far more attractive colors and extremely durable paint.
VIP: Describe a situation working with the organization that really stood out and touched you.
KH: We have had so many people say “thank you” to us for the work we have done to reopen the pools. My heart is touched every time I hear that and every time I see someone joyfully swimming in the pool. The other gratifying thing is the faith that so many people in this community have had in us. People who did not know us thought we were crazy to take this on and would never be successful. People who know us knew all along that we could accomplish this – and their support and donations has been what made it happen.
VIP: What are some ways that community members can contribute, help and get involved?
KH: In Destin, right now, we need donations so that we can get the work done to make repairs and reopen the pools. We really need another $150,000 to get both pools up and running. This is a wonderful opportunity for a naming sponsor to make an investment in this community that will help a huge number of citizens and visitors. We also welcome small donations and appreciate every single expression of support and encouragement. Once we are open, we encourage everyone to come and swim: lap swim for fitness, put the kids in lessons, bring grandma to aquacize, join a swim team, or host an event that rents the pool facility. We keep the fees very reasonable and the process is simple; this allows more people to participate and enjoy, which helps us to keep the revenue coming in to pay the operating costs.