Unsung Heroes 2015: Mark Rodgers

Mark Rodgers


For Mark Rodgers, it’s all about water. He canoes, he kayaks, he fishes and his career goal is to become a marine biologist. Now Mark is being honored as an Unsung Hero because he has spent time – a lot of time – in a local pool, helping a 12-year-old boy with autism learn to swim. 

For over three years, Mark has volunteered as one of 17 ‘swim buddies’ with Super Swimmers Academy, working primarily with Matthew Henke. “Mark has taught swim skills to Matthew that I, as a seasoned swim instructor, wasn’t able to teach,” Sarah Jane Marx wrote in her nomination letter. Marx founded the program 35 years ago. 

The volunteer work is just one part of Mark’s life. He is finishing his junior year at high school, he plays football and he teaches kids to play tennis. Mark also participates in the Cultural Leadership program, a yearlong program that teaches Jewish and African-American teens to be leaders “who will fight for social justice, inclusion and an end to discrimination.” 

Still, Marx said, “Mark always finds time to be with Matthew for his weekly swim lesson.” 


“It’s really rewarding and also challenging,” Mark said. “I’ve been with Matthew for so long, watching him grow, seeing him change. It’s really nice to still be there with him.” 

Mark first volunteered with Super Swimmers Academy for his bar mitzvah project. Helen, one of his older sisters, previously had volunteered for the program. Mark has another older sister, Hannah, and the family belongs to Central Reform Congregation. 

From the beginning, Mark was especially good with kids. “I noticed early on Mark’s excellent interpersonal skills, including his ability to connect with and establish a positive rapport with children who have a variety of special needs,” Marx said. About half the students in the program are special-needs kids, she said, and some 300 have learned to swim there. Marx also praised Mark’s “intuitive sense,” his caring attitude and his maturity.

Though Mark has helped a number of students learn to swim, he said he definitely has bonded with Matthew. “Trying to understand how to communicate with him both verbally and with body language, I’ve tried to learn how to make him feel like he is OK,” Mark said. “I’ve helped get Matthew get comfortable in the water.” 

Originally, Matthew balked. “He had a big aversion to putting his head under water. He would always swim on his back, with his head out. It was a big challenge,” Mark said. “Now Matthew swims underwater, and even goes to the bottom of the pool.” 

Mark credits his age with some of his success teaching Matthew to swim. “I think he feels he has more in common with a younger person. Also, I’ve spent time getting to know his personality, learning how he wanted me to act,” Mark said. “He’s a great kid.” 

Kathy and Paul Henke, Matthew’s parents, say the same thing about Mark. “Mark truly is a light in Matthew’s life, and we are grateful and feel most fortunate for his path to have crossed ours in this journey called life,” said Kathy Henke. Over the years, Mark’s and Matthew’s parents have become friends.

One year, Mark gave Matthew a picture of the two of them together at the pool. “According to Matthew’s mother, Matthew says ‘goodnight’ to Mark in the picture before going to bed,” Marx reported. Mark said he knows about that, and he laughed softly, clearly proud.  

Developing friendships with others, especially those with special needs, is a real talent that takes work, Marx noted. “This has been a very concrete way for Mark to do tikkun olam. In addition, teaching your child to swim is also a commandment in the Torah,” Marx said, “so Mark has performed several mitzvahs at the same time.”

One of Mark’s biggest concerns right now is what will happen when he leaves for college. On those rare occasions when Mark was not at Matthew’s weekly swim lesson the past few years, Matthew would not get in the pool.

“I remember when I first started, it was hard to get Matthew in the pool because he was really connected to his previous helper. Being there for him has become an important part of my life, and before I leave for college, we’ll have to make sure there will be a smooth transition to a new helper,” Mark said. 

“We will have to make sure Matthew is comfortable and OK.”