By Mechelle Hankerson
Richmond City Parks and Recreation and the YMCA of Greater Richmond are teaming up for the fifth summer in a row to provide free swim lessons to local children who might be a little water-shy.
Since 2007, the two groups have partnered together for YMCA Water Smarts, meant to educate children between the ages of 6 and 12 on water safety as well as acclimate the children to the water. “(Water Smarts) is an opportunity to have fun in the water but also learn about being safe in and around the water,” Aquatics Director for the YMCA of Greater Richmond, Cami Raimo said.
The program brings children, who participate in different day camps and programs from community centers all over the city, to daily free swim lessons at Hotchkiss pool for a week throughout the month of July. Priscilla Wright, a Programs Specialist who oversees the partnership from the city’s side, estimates the summer program benefits about 400 children every year. Each day, volunteers from local YMCAs teach two sessions of swimming and safety lessons to children from at least two different community centers.
Raimo said drowning is still the second-leading cause of unintentional death among children up to the age of 14, so bringing water safety knowledge and skills to children in the metro Richmond area is of utmost importance. “The (YMCA) really focused on inner-city (children), giving them the opportunity (to learn how to swim),” Raimo said.
The YMCA also considered statistics they found that showed African-Americans tend to drown more than other races when developing and implementing the Water Smarts program. Wright said children’s safety is always important, but for African-American children, water safety requires special attention. “When you get to the African-American community, you have the death rate of children dying from drowning increases by 20 percent,” she said.
Raimo said that the most likely explanation for the statistics is a lack of exposure to water safety and education. While the city has not specifically looked into an explanation behind these numbers, Wright said she imagines some of the problem might be the cost of swimming lessons in the area. “Swim lessons aren’t truly affordable a lot of the times…,” she said. “(Children) don’t get the accurate (information) of how to adapt to the water.”
At local YMCAs, comparable beginner swim programs (for children aged 6 to 12) cost non-members $74 for ten days while members of the YMCA pay $37 for a ten-day swim class. As children get older, their lessons cost most: for adult classes at the YMCA, for swim students aged 13 to 17, non-members must pay $82, while members pay $41.
The YMCA does offer income-based membership rates for families whose yearly income is under $75,000 and individuals whose income is under $60,000. Still, for a youth membership for a family making between $30,000 and $34,999, the YMCA charges approximately $36 for a joining fee and a monthly fee of about $35.
The City of Richmond, however, tried to overcome this obstacle for families by offering swim lessons at two of their community centers, but Wright said it isn’t enough. “That’s only two locations and we have over 20 community centers,” she said.
According to Wright, it may be a challenge for some families to provide transportation to the designated community centers at the times when the swim lessons are offered.
Despite what the statistics say, Pine Camp Culture Arts and Community Center counselor, Brandon Ward, said the children enjoy the program, regardless of their prior experience (or inexperience). “In the summer most kids just want to get in the water, but these kids are enjoying the learning,” Ward said. “They actually line up in the morning waiting to go.”
Wright said the Water Smarts class is especially important for children in the Richmond area, especially since the class focuses on more than just how to swim.
“Water smarts isn’t just swimming,” she said. “It’s how to be safe in and around the water.”
One of the emphasized lessons in Water Smarts is teaching children the “Reach, Throw, Never Go” strategy that teaches children to never go in the water to help a friend in danger. Rather, the program teaches them to try to reach their friend or throw something to help pull them in until a certified lifeguard can help.
“Wherever they are, these things are important,” Wright said. For Wright, it’s important to teach children skills like these in an area that is as active as Richmond. “Not only is it swimming in pools, but we have the James River,” she said. “Tons of kids are at the James River any day.”
In addition to their Water Smarts program during the summer, the YMCA works with local school districts to teach elementary-aged students basic water safety and skills. Since 1996, the YMCA has provided free swim lessons for all second-graders in Richmond, Petersburg, Chesterfield, Powhatan and Goochland. The program is now implemented in 45 schools.
Local YMCAs are not the only organizations in the area offering swim programs to children who might otherwise not have the opportunity.
The Greater Richmond Aquatics Partnership includes area sports organizations, including Collegiate School, Trinity Episcopal School, Poseidon Swimming, Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer Club and Sports Backers.
When the sponsoring groups announced the creation of the center last year, one of their goals was to make swim lessons and water safety education more accessible to children in the Richmond area.
GRAP’s Aquatic Center features three pools: a 50 meter, eight-lane competition pool, a therapy pool and a 25 yard, six-lane multipurpose pool. At GRAP’s Aquatic Center, monthly membership runs from $25 for children 2-17 years old to $35 for anyone over 60 years old. For families with more than two members, GRAP charges $60 a month. For classes, GRAP charges $68 for eight classes for members and $80 for eight classes for non-members.
For more information about the YMCA and GRAP’s summer programs, visit http://www.ymcarichmond.org/ and http://www.greaterrichmondaquaticspartnership.org/.