A popular movie character once declared that “if you’re good at something, never do it for free,” but Saji Valasseri from Aluva in Kerala begs to disagree. While he works as a steel furniture manufacturer during the day, his true passion lies in swimming and in an effort to spread the joy, he has been giving free classes to school children, adults and the visually impaired for over a decade now.
“It all started when I was teaching my children how to swim, and watching them, my friend’s child also joined in. These three learnt swimming in 2 weeks, and the word spread. Soon children and elderly from nearby neighbourhoods started approaching me to teach them swimming,” mentions Saji.
Saji started taking summer classes in the beginning and was always keen that they would be free. “I believe that swimming is a life skill that everyone needs to learn, especially with all the drowning cases we see in the newspapers every day. And for the same reason, I don’t charge my students,” he adds.
Saji conducts classes from December to May every year, and has taught over 3200 people so far.
“From December to March, I conduct classes for the elderly and March to April for the kids because the senior citizens tend to take a longer time to learn,” he explains.
Saji’s classes start at 6 AM and go on till 9:30 AM. While beginners practice on the shore, students who have got the knack of swimming, practice in the Aluva river.
“I’ve made a steel frame for those practising on land. This is just so that they get an idea of the hand and leg movements before they move into the water,” he adds.
Weak or Strong, A Swimming Class For All
From 5-year-old Niveditha to 65-year old Sunny being the eldest, Saji’s swimming classes have a wide variety of students.
But he is justifiably proud of a few, and Manoj is one of them.
“Manoj was 11 when he joined my class and was the first visually impaired child to do so. I didn’t have to think twice when accepting him, because everyone deserves a chance to learn how to swim. Besides, I got to explore an entirely new teaching methodology thanks to him,” mentions Saji.
“I started the classes by telling him to feel the movements of my hands and legs. Once he got the hang of that, we moved into the water. Initially, I made sure that I held onto to him, but when he started swimming well, I let go. However, I continuously spoke to him so that he felt my presence,” he adds.
After months of training, Manoj became the first visually impaired boy to cross the largest river in Kerala.
Saji also mentions Malu Sheika, a former student, who holds the record for being the first woman to cross the Vembanad Lake at its widest stretch. After training under Saji for eight months, Malu became the first woman to cover the breadth of the lake.
“I’ve also had students like 7-year old Krishna who underwent neurosurgery and lost the sense of touch in her left foot. In 2013, after a few months of training in my class, the senses in her foot were revived. It was truly miraculous. I didn’t realise that swimming could bring about such a huge change.” he explains.
Similarly, 51-year old Radhakrishnan who lost the sensation in his hand was also able to revive it in a few months of training in Saji’s class.
“Saji won’t let you give up at any cost. He is extremely patient, and it doesn’t matter how long you take to swim, there will never be a word of discouragement from his part,” says the Alappuzha Tahsildar James who also trained under him.
To ensure safety during practices, Saji has arranged a safety boat and an ambulance that are available at all times.
“My dream is to build a community of swimmers, and I try to do everything in my capacity to make my students feel comfortable and confident during the practice sessions,” he concludes.