Just a few months ago, Christopher Santana, 11, didn’t know how to swim.
Neither did 10-year-old Ruby Rodriguez.
But, thanks to free summer water safety lessons offered at the New Tampa Family YMCA, both youth, along with several others, are now confident about hopping into a pool and swimming unassisted.
For the past three years, the New Tampa YMCA has partnered with the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corporation to offer free swim lessons to children from low-income families living near the areas surrounding the University of South Florida.
For an hour each Tuesday and Thursday from June 13 to Aug. 5, dozens of youth from the Development Corporation’s Dream Catchers summer camp program were transported to the New Tampa Y, where they learned lifesaving swim techniques during the warmest days of the year.
Throughout the summer program, children ages 6 to 12 were taught how to float in the water and to swim to the edge of the New Tampa YMCA’s Olympic-sized pool. The pool is one of the largest in Hillsborough County at 50 meters by 25 yards.
“A lot of it is just being comfortable in the water, so they aren’t scared,” said Lacey Carter, the YMCA’s aquatics director. “With this particular group, water safety is the main focus — learning how to be safe in the water, if they do fall in. Teaching them how to swim is definitely something we want to aim for, but the water safety piece is what the program is most about.”
With a ratio of one certified swim instructor to eight children, the young swimmers often received individual attention, learning how to properly use their hands and feet to easily buoy through the water.
While the majority of lessons take place in the shallow end of the pool, the oldest children were permitted to jump into the deepest end of pool, which is 7 ½ feet deep.
Fun swim activities, too, were mixed in with the water safety training.
“They’ll play games as part of the curriculum,” the aquatics director said. “They’ll do like ‘red light, green light’ or (instructors) will have them dive for things. Water safety is important, but we want them to have fun, otherwise they’re not going to want to come here.”
According to the Florida Department of Health, the state has the nation’s second highest drowning rate (2.54 deaths per 100,000 population) for children under 15, trailing only Oklahoma (2.69 per 100,000).
Additionally, a 2010 study by USA Swimming found that in ethnically diverse communities, the youth drowning rate is “two to three times higher than the national average.”
Martine Dorvil, program director for the University Area Community Development Corporation, said a majority of the youth in the camp come from working-poor families, and ordinarily wouldn’t have access to swim lessons, which can be expensive.
“This is huge,” she said, “because most of our kids live in apartment complexes which have pools. We have a lot of parents with a lot of children, and what ends up happening is the oldest child — sometimes just 10 years old — is watching the 6-year-old. So, this provides them a safe place.”
She continued: “This partnership with the YMCA has been phenomenal. Most kids don’t get the attention that they’re given here to actually have a personal swimming instructor, so that’s really something extra.”
Dorvil has witnessed, firsthand, how much the youth involved in the program enjoy the biweekly lessons over the summer months.
“On one of the days when it rained, I actually had to buy pizza because they were that upset when they didn’t get to go swimming,” she said, chuckling.
Tony Kimbrough, executive director for the New Tampa YMCA, said he will look to renew the partnership with the University Area Community Development Corporation on an annual basis.
The summer is not the only time that free water safety lessons are offered at the New Tampa YMCA. They also offer a four-day course each March, called “Safety Around Water,” for children ages 3 to 12. Each class lasts 40 minutes.
Published August 17, 2016