Erika Gleeson hopes inclusivity of people with disabilities will one day become the norm.
"The onus is on society to be more inclusive," she said.
The Port Macquarie resident is founder of Autism Swim, a charity which operates in 26 countries with thousands of individuals benefiting from specialised water safety, learn-to-swim programs and water therapy.
She's recently established Port Macquarie as the charity's base, after moving back to the town a year ago.
Erika's dedication to helping others was recognised with a NSW Australian of the Year nomination.
Erika grew up at Lighthouse Beach and has fond memories of spending time in the surf.
"I'm a very outdoorsy, beachy person and that has shaped the Autism Swim journey," she said.
Erika believes everyone should be given the same opportunity to experience a safe and fun water experience.
"I'm at the beach everyday and I never take it for granted," she said.
In 2015 she learnt about an alarming statistic. Children on the autism spectrum are 160 times more likely to drown than their peers.
Over the past six years Erika has worked hard to change the statistic.
When the charity was established there was no other organisation like it in the world.
"To this day, we are the only ones," she said.
"Ultimately what we're about is inclusion."
Erika has established a business solution for each of challenges presented by individual people and their families.
Autism Swim has an initiative called Dippers, which is a modified Nipper program to teach surf safety.
It's run at Flynns Beach, as well as a number of other beach locations in Australia.
The organisation also introduced an international app with a water safety game, which was utlised during COVID lockdowns when swimming lessons weren't run.
Erika said small charities had been one of hardest hit groups out of the COVID pandemic.
"Particularly for us where we've had swim centres close and there are donation habits changing," she said.
Erkia said she's been 'blown away' with support from the local community who are getting behind their cause.
"I am thrilled to be here," she said.
"I know the Mid North Coast is underrepresented when it comes to disability support services.
"The fact that we'll be able to offer more services to anyone who has a need... is a really great feeling."
Erika hopes to increase the number of Autism Swim approved providers on the Mid North Coast.
Erika said she was thrilled when Dylan was named as Australian of the Year.
"The most important thing is people are learning about inclusion through him," she said.
"He's really been such a strong advocate and he's such a great spokesperson.
"It was time someone with a disability won that award."
The charity has a number of upcoming fundraiser events. For more information please visit autismswim.com.au/events, or the Autism Swim Facebook page.
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