Local YMCA bridging gap by teaching safe swimming to Black, Brown children

KING COUNTY, Wash. — Across the country, summertime means swimming, whether it is at a beach, lake or pool. While swimming is one of the best ways to spend the day, for many kids not knowing how to swim keeps them from enjoying the water and may even put their lives at risk.

Swimming is a rite of passage and it comes with the slapping, sloshing and splashing of water that make up learning how to swim.

“We get to jump in and then like, I really love like the front stroke and it’s really fun for me,” said one swim student at the Dale Turner Family YMCA in Shoreline.

Students learning how to swim at the YMCA are thankful for an instructor who goes the extra mile.

“If we’re having a hard time, they give us like an easier way to try and get it,” Arrio Atienzea, another swim student, said.

“Let’s say you’re in the pool right, if you basically don’t know how to swim like freestyle or backstroke, she’s going to help you do it, she’s going to show you how to do it,” Yitebarke Dabi said.

KIRO 7 found out that the swim students have improved since their first class, which has helped them to become more confident in swimming and in themselves.

“First day, (I was) probably like a 3 out of 10 and now, I probably (have) increased to like a 7 out of 10,” Dabi said.

As for the students’ instructor Eli, it’s all about developing the swimmer and the person. While the kids are growing, swim lessons are not an option for every kid in Seattle.

“When you’re from a marginalized community you may not have the resources to afford swimming lessons or to have access to a pool,” said Eli, a Shoreline YMCA aquatics instructor.

Because of that, groups like Gabrielle’s Wings and No More Under step in to help.

“Sixty-seven percent of people whose parents do not know how to swim, do not learn how to swim. And so that just kind goes to show that a lot of it actually stems back generationally into segregation where Black and Brown people were not even allowed to swim in public pools and so grandparents didn’t learn how to swim and therefore had fear of the water,” said Chezik Tsunoda, with No More Under.

Michelle Hord, with Gabrielle’s Wings, and Tsunoda are now turning that pain of losing children into purpose.

In just the past four months, No More Under has helped fund lessons for 100 kids across the region, while Gabrielle’s Wings is backing a pilot program aimed at getting BIPOC kids into YMCA swim lessons.

“Black and Brown children drown at least four times as much as their Caucasian counterparts, still. And so bringing swimming to the community is really, really important,” said Hord. “Funding is difficult but I think it just speaks to how important it is. There is nothing more important than our children’s safety and we talk so much about safety on land, safety about crossing the street.”

YMCA CEO Loria Yeadon explained that there are several factors keeping Black and Brown kids from swim lessons, namely finances, transportation and history.

“If parents don’t know how to swim, kids are only 13% likely to learn how to swim. So given that high percentage of African Americans who don’t swim, you can understand why kids aren’t beating it to our doors to learn. But we’re hoping to change that,” Yeadon said.

“When you see people who look like you or who share your experiences, you feel more inclined to participate and grow,” Eli said.

That is how simple it could be to cut down on a growing number of drowning-related deaths among Black and Brown children.

Eli is hoping the swim students can encourage other kids to get lessons and grow confident and empowered in the water.

“Knowing that you can protect yourself and protect others around water, it’s a big thing,” Eli said.

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