YMCA pool safety program targets immigrant, African American kids

Leaving children to their own devices at pools has long been a recipe for tragedy. But the risks have worsened as Charlotte has attracted thousands of undocumented immigrants who’d never be so bold as to register for swimming lessons.

Yet most live in apartments, and those apartments have community pools that operate without lifeguards.

Charlotte’s YMCA is among the first in the nation to come up with a solution.

If immigrant families won’t come to the agency for help, the agency has decided to go to them with a program that is offering free water safety classes at 20 apartment communities. The program’s target is immigrant and African American children, who are five times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

YMCA officials expect to reach 1,000 such children this summer, thanks in part to the fact that it’s free. Parents aren’t asked about their immigration status, and their children don’t have to speak English.

The cost is being covered by YMCA donors and grants from foundations such as the NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, which provided a $25,000 grant.

Honduran-born Yorleny Funes is among those taking advantage of the program. She has two children, ages 1 and 5, doesn’t speak English and rarely strays from the tight-knit immigrant community that has formed at the Highlands apartments in south Charlotte. She enrolled her oldest son, Angel.

“I can’t swim, and my worst fear is that he will find his way here and fall into the pool and drown,” says Funes through an interpreter. “With this program, at least I know he can get out of the water on his own.”

Yesenia Alston, manager of the Highlands, says 60 percent of the people who live in the apartments are immigrants. “They are shy about engaging with strangers and want to stay below the radar, so they would never register their kids for these kinds of classes,” she says. “I think it’s going to save lives.”

YMCA officials tested the program last summer with 300 children at six apartment communities and found it was popular with apartment managers and donors. The program teaches such basics as how to get out of the pool, swim on your stomach for a distance of 6  1/2 feet, and jump in deep water and return to the wall. The classes, taught by YMCA certified swim instructors, are 40 minutes and typically stretch over eight days. A lifeguard is provided by the Y during classes and registration is not required.

Laura Ferguson of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte says some of the students are clearly petrified of even getting into the pool. “We had one child who screamed so loudly, people were coming out of their apartments to see what was going on,” she said. “But by the time we were through, she knew how to get out of the water on her own.”

It cost an average of $3,000 per pool to sponsor a class, and among the Charlotteans who have stepped up with money is Sue Alman Schneider, a mother of three. She sponsored the Highlands and went so far as to start a personal campaign to get donated bathing suits and towels for the children. (Target helped with discounts, she says.)

Schneider says she was attracted to the program because her parents had a 5-year-old son, Michael, who drowned before she was born.

“I was born into a household filled with grief and despair,” she says. “It was not until I had my first child, Margot, that I understood, at least a little, the devastation my parents and other relatives endured.”

Her goal is to prevent other parents from experiencing that, particularly immigrant parents who she knows from personal experience are struggling with cultural difference that make even the simplest of things a challenge.

“Once you get to know such people, you realize what it’s like to live in constant fear,” she said. “We’re talking about giving them access to something critical, something that can save the lives of children. What I’m doing is putting myself in their shoes, and I hope other people might do the same.”

Safety Around Water

The YMCA of Greater Charlotte received grants and donations to provide free Safety Around Water instruction this summer to 1,000 children at 20 largely African American and Hispanic apartment complexes. Details: www.ymcacharlotte.org/donate and select Safety Around Water. Or they can mail a check to 400 E. Morehead St.. Charlotte NC 28202, Attn: Safety Around Water.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer