Photographer / Whitney Moore
When a 25-meter pool was built at Westfield High School (WHS) in 1997, it suited the needs of the students at that time. As the student population grew, so did the amount of humidity in the pool. Not only had it become a sauna, but it also wasn’t large enough to serve a student population of 2,700.
“We had simply outgrown our old pool,” says Joe Montalone, director of operations at Westfield Schools. “A larger natatorium was needed.”
Thanks to a collaborative effort between three entities – Westfield Washington Schools, the Wheeler family and the YMCA – the Westfield Washington Schools Aquatic Center was recently built. The partnership is designed to bring about a better quality of life, both for WHS students and the Westfield community. The school system partnered with the YMCA to share the center.
More than 10 years ago, the YMCA was looking for an area to build a facility, and there had always been murmurs about how Westfield would be the ideal location. Questionnaires revealed that the community was behind the idea. Five years ago the Wheelers, a prominent local family, donated eight acres of land for the aquatic center. The donation, according to Montalone, saved the district $2.5 million.
Construction on the aquatic center, which is located a quarter of a mile from WHS, began more than a year and a half ago, and was completed earlier this year. Now, WHS athletes have a 50-meter, competition-style pool with 1-meter and 3-meter diving areas at the north end, not to mention spacious locker-room facilities.
“This wonderful facility will give our student-athletes a facility in which they can hone their craft,” says Montalone, who spearheaded the construction and design of the aquatic center. “It will also provide enjoyment of swimming and aquatic safety for the general public.”
The pool couldn’t have come at a better time because with COVID-19 restrictions, social distancing was difficult at the old pool. Practices had to be expanded, since a limited number of athletes could be in the pool at once.
Since the pool at the high school is no longer needed, WHS filled it in and is in the process of repurposing the space into a wellness center. They also plan to expand the locker rooms.
Down the road, the YMCA will erect a facility that connects to the east side of the aquatic center. For now, the high school uses the pool for team practices, and when they are not using it, the YMCA offers swimming classes and lessons to the public.
“This joint partnership has been a dream,” Montalone says. “The YMCA looks forward to assisting us in everything we do, and we reciprocate that feeling.”
In April the Wheeler family, including brothers, sisters, spouses and their children, were treated to a private tour of the aquatic center.
“When I walked through and saw all these little kids learning to swim, the coach made it look so fun I wanted to jump in and join them,” Andy Wheeler says. “I think that one way to measure the value of a gift is by the volume of laugher it generates through kids. The louder they laugh and splash, the greater the value – and if learning to swim saves someone’s life, that’s worth the whole gift right there.”
As representatives of the school district and the community, Montalone and his colleagues were thrilled to thank the Wheeler family for their generosity. The Wheelers, however, give all glory to God.
“The land we’ve had didn’t belong to us,” Wheeler says. “It’s always been God’s ground. We’ve just been the custodians of it.”
Giving back to the community is a tradition for the Wheeler family, who moved to the Westfield area in the late 1880s.
“Throughout our history here, we have always supported the school system, local churches and the local government,” Wheeler says. “It’s the way we were raised. We think it’s important for citizens to be involved.”
As for why they honed in on this particular partnership, Wheeler says it was due to the direction of his mother Virginia.
“She was always encouraging people to take care of their bodies by being active,” Wheeler says. “She was in favor of anything that brings intergenerational people together in activities.”
He also recalls that when she was a little girl, she had a friend who drowned, so learning to swim was important to her.
“I think especially today, a lot of people have a misunderstanding of giving,” Wheeler adds. “They think that if you give, you should expect something in return. All I want back is the satisfaction of doing something God wanted me to do. The Westfield Washington Schools Aquatic Center is proof of what a community can do when individuals come together.”
For more info on the Westfield Washington Schools Aquatic Center, call 317-660-2409 or visit teamunify.com/team/isvipr/page/home.