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YMCA working to lower drowning rate of minority children

YMCA lifeguard Jocelyn Owens, left, teaches kids about swimming safety using kick boards during a swimming safety session at the pool of the Woodbridge Apartments on Friday May 22, 2015. For a story on how the YMCA is trying to help low income families who live in apartments avoid drowning deaths.
YMCA lifeguard Jocelyn Owens, left, teaches kids about swimming safety using kick boards during a swimming safety session at the pool of the Woodbridge Apartments on Friday May 22, 2015. For a story on how the YMCA is trying to help low income families who live in apartments avoid drowning deaths. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The YMCA of Greater Charlotte is tackling one of the city’s most common summer tragedies with an initiative to prevent African-American and Hispanic children from drowning in apartment complex pools.

Safety Around Water is a survival course tailored to children whose experience with pools might be limited by economics or culture.

Money is not required, and parents don’t have to register their children. YMCA officials hope the latter will eliminate a barrier in cases where parents might be in the country illegally and fear revealing their status to strangers.

YMCA officials say their first-year goal is to reach 300 children in apartment communities populated by low-income African-American and Hispanic families.

African-American children ages 5 to 19 are five times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children, based on national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in the case of children ages 11 and 12, the drowning rate for black children is 10 times those of whites.

Two of the apartment communities signed up for the new YMCA program have had minority children drown in pools over the past 14 months; one an African-American boy and the other an Asian-American boy. The most recent case was last month and involved a 4-year-old boy who drowned at Vista Village in Charlotte.

Data is not available on Hispanic children, but anecdotal evidence shows an equally high drowning rate, said YMCA officials.

Charlotte’s YMCA is one of 10 in the country offering the program, which teaches such basics as how to get out of the pool, swim on your stomach for a distance of 61/2 feet, and jump in deep water and return to the wall. The classes, taught by YMCA certified swim instructors, are 40 minutes each and typically stretch over eight days. A lifeguard is also provided by the Y during those classes.

Molly Thompson of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte said donations helped the agency launch the program at no cost to parents, including $25,000 from the YUSA (the YMCA’s national office) and $5,000 from the national Make a Splash program. An additional $3,000 came from Myers Park United Methodist Church. The money was given in memory of Randez Brown, 11, an African-American boy who drowned in March 2014 while trying to save his sister in a swift moving creek. Brown had been part of the church’s programs.

“We are launching the program in six apartment communities this summer, but the dream is to have it at every apartment complex, if we can get more grants,” said Laura Ferguson, a development director with the YMCA. “It’s not swim lessons. It’s water safety, so if a child falls in, they can get out. It’s training them for the unexpected. We are targeting lower income minority complexes because those are the ones with the highest risk based on data.”

The program is being introduced just after census data showed Mecklenburg County’s Hispanic population growing at double the rate of the white population: Hispanics are now 12.7 percent of the county’s population, after a nearly 15 percent increase between 2010 and last year.

Among the Hispanics involved are Diana Zavala, 24, who brought her two younger brothers to the program last week at the Central Pointe Apartments on Central Avenue. The boys – David, 9, and Diego, 6 – don’t know how to swim, and Zavala knew from experience that drowning was a risk for both.

“I almost drowned when I was 9, and I don’t want that for them,” said Zavala, whose parents are from Mexico. “In my case, someone kept pushing me toward deep water until it got to the point where I was choking, swallowing water and panicking. I had to be rescued. You never forget something like that.”

Kayonda Palmer, 37, brought three daughters to the Central Pointe classes, ages 6, 7 and 9. All three were reluctant to get into the water.

“I’m scared,” said her daughter Kaywon, 9. “I’m scared of the 8-foot water. I’ll drown.”

Their mother said she sympathized, having had a close call with drowning as a child. The family moved here a year ago from Florida, and it was not long after that she began hearing stories of small children drowning in pools.

“I want my children to know how to swim,” Palmer said, “but I also like the idea that they can take what they learn and keep someone else from drowning.”

Price: 704-358-5245

Safety Around Water

The YMCA of Greater Charlotte received grants and donation to provide free Safety Around Water instruction this summer to 300 children at six largely African-American and Hispanic apartment complexes. The nonprofit is depending on the generosity of businesses and individuals to continue or possibly expand the program in the summer of 2016.

Details: www.ymcacharlotte.org/SwimmingSavesLives.

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