“They (the YMCAs) really left the community in a lurch, and none of the government organizations were interested in stepping up and taking these pools over and offering them for the community,” said Kathi Heapy, one of the ECFF's four founders.

 

In a city that’s surrounded by water on both sides, the importance of being able to swim is a given.

But after the YMCA buildings in Destin and Fort Walton Beach declared bankruptcy and shuttered in 2014, there was suddenly no safe place for swimmers, swim teams, lifeguards and recreational swimmers to compete and train in the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area.

“They (the YMCAs) really left the community in a lurch, and none of the government organizations were interested in stepping up and taking these pools over and offering them for the community,” said Kathi Heapy, one of the four founders of the Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation.

Heapy founded the nonprofit with her husband, Gary, and their aquatic acquaintances Pam and Bruce Braseth. Both couples were active in the swimming community for years before the YMCAs in Destin and Fort Walton Beach came and went.

Pam Braseth was a swim coach at Liza Jackson Elementary, Fort Walton Beach High School and for the Bluewater Barracudas. She is now the secretary of the Fitness Foundation.

“I called Kathi and we sat around my kitchen table and we talked about having something where people could channel their energies and their monies to have this happen,” Braseth said of their vision to re-open the pools.

After the foundation was formed in January 2015, the Heapys and Braseths set out to re-open the pool in the old YMCA building in Fort Walton Beach. They teamed up with Liza Jackson Elementary School, which wanted to use the building’s gym facilities for their physical education classes, and together they brought the building back to life.

“They (Liza Jackson Elementary) contacted us about partnering so that we could run the pool and they could have the gym,” Heapy said. “That turned out to be a wonderful idea. Liza Jackson was able to lease the facility from the city of Fort Walton Beach, and they sublet the pool to the Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation.”

The foundation raised every penny of the money needed to bring the pool back to life from the community. Their biggest gift came from Sharon and Tim Smith, who donated $100,000 in honor of Sharon’s late father, local swim legend Bernie Lefebvre. The Bernie R. Lefebvre Aquatic Center is named in his honor.

The pool celebrated its one-year anniversary in December 2016. Since opening, Heapy said the Fitness Foundation has taught 450 people how to swim and has over 1,000 people signed up for its programs, which include aquatic exercising for seniors, swimming lessons for children and various swim teams and leagues. The pool is used regularly by lifeguards, military members and handicapped people as well. 

"That pool has something going on from 5 a.m to 8 p.m. five days a week, and shorter hours on the weekends," Heapy said. 

Heapy stressed that the community is responsible for the Fitness Foundation’s success in Fort Walton Beach.

“We were basically the nexus for the community to come together and get this done,” she said. “We collected donations and coordinated volunteers, but the community came together and supported us and made it happen.”

Now, Heapy and Braseth hope the community can come together and do it again. The Fitness Foundation secured a contract with the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation to take over the old YMCA pools in Destin, and has been fundraising since January to get the facility up and running. They expect the pools to be used for local, regional and national swim meets, training purposes for lifeguards and firefighters, swimming lessons, aquatic exercise and therapy.

So far, the foundation has raised enough money to pay the first year’s rent, insurance and deposits; mow the grounds, pull weeds and remove debris; purchase new computer screens for chemicals and pumps; and repair and paint the building exterior, offices and locker rooms.

But they still need at least $168,000 more to refinish the competition pool, family pool and splash pad; purchase lane lines and flags; and purchase a thermal cover and reel, among other things.

“We are confident it will get done,” said Heapy, who also serves as the foundation’s treasurer. “Our financial management is very conservative. We don’t spend any money we don’t have. The pool will open when we get the money to do it. And as we are getting money, we are paying for things.”

The Destin City Council will vote Monday night on whether or not to give the foundation $57,000 to assist in its fundraising efforts.

Braseth said having the pool in Destin is critical to ensuring the safety of swimmers in the city.

“We’re surrounded by water, and I believe that everybody in our community should have the opportunity to learn how to be strong and safe in the water so that they can choose to do all of the activities that are available here,” Braseth said.

“We hope that the community, and Destin in particular, will continue to step up and help make that facility a reality,” she added.

To learn more about the Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation or to donate, visit www.ecfitnessfoundation.org.