All children deserve to develop the skills to be safe around water, no matter what their economic status or skin color happens to be. But a national study by USA Swimming found that nearly 70 percent of African-American and Hispanic children have low to no swim skills, and are three times more likely to have a drowning or near-drowning incident than Caucasian children.
For children in Detroit, the reality is stark: of 120,000 children in the city, it’s estimated 100,000 of them can’t swim; many have never entered a pool. Most municipal pools in the city have closed in recent years. But the YMCA program Detroit Swims is turning that tide. Since the program launched in 2010, 1,300 children have taken swim classes through Detroit Swims at no cost to them. Program staff transport them to local high school pools, provide them with a suit and swim gear, and work with them to ensure that they learn enough skills to be safe around water.
It’s fitting, since the Y is the largest single provider of swimming lessons in the country and more or less invented the way swim instruction is provided. And now Detroit Swims is using that expertise to literally save — and transform — lives.
Gwendolyn Howard believes in the program so much she’s taken responsibility to supervise her granddaughter Madison Tate, 10, and her classmates at Dickson Elementary School when they come to Detroit Swims at Cody High School. Madison already liked swimming and had some experience doing it, and has learned how to dive over the course of the program. Gwendolyn, a retired social worker, acknowledged the barriers many parents in the city face in getting their children to swim, with public pools falling victim to budgets cuts and few if any private pools available, but says this is a critical issue. “Detroit parents need to seek this out,” she says. “Everybody needs to be familiar with the water.”
Kids like Laura Whitley are living proof of the program’s effectiveness. Before she participated in Detroit Swims, she was afraid to even go near the deep end of the pool. Now, she can confidently backstroke across the deep end like she’s been doing it all her young life. “I was a little scared before, because I’m small,” she says. “Now I love it.”