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Continued: Shoring up safety in the water: 'It's a life-saving skill'

Britney Moreno's head went completely under water at the Midtown YWCA pool in Minneapolis. The 9-year-old's mother, Matilde Dominguez, reflexively leaned forward from a nearby bench, then settled back down when it was clear that Britney was not only OK, but actually enjoying her first swimming lesson.

Britney and her 11-year-old sister, Magali, repeated the instructors' swim strokes as their father, Roberto Moreno, videotaped their progress on his cellphone.

"This is the land of 10,000 lakes," he said through an interpreter. "They have to know how to swim."

In Minnesota that's not always the case.

Racial minorities in Minnesota are more likely to be victims of drowning than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

The CDC found that blacks here were twice as likely to drown as whites. Already this year, in a two-week period at the beginning of summer swim season, five of the nine drownings in the state were from racial minority groups. Four of those five were children.

The reasons include having less access to swimming pools and lessons, cultural differences and, in some communities, each generation passing down a fear of water to the next.

To combat the problem in the Twin Cities, the YWCA, YMCA and Hennepin County have all launched water-safety programs aimed at minority children.

Startling statistics

While more minority drownings have been the norm for many years, the problem has grown as the state has become more diverse. Officials here recognize that mastering basic water-safety skills is the strongest preventive measure.

Research has shown that parents -- of any color -- who don't swim are much less likely to encourage their own children to learn, said Julie Gilchrist, an epidemiologist specializing in injury prevention at CDC.

"The common response to the potential threat of water is to avoid it. But once children are no longer toddlers, parents can't always control their children's environment to ensure they'll never encounter water. Parents have to recognize that swimming is more than recreation, it's a life-saving skill."

Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of black youth and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic youth do not know how to swim, according to a 2010 report by the University of Memphis.

Belkis Rosario doesn't want her daughter to be part of the statistics.

Rosario, of Crystal, takes two buses and a train to get to the southeast Minneapolis Y so 8-year-old Amberly can take lessons in its Swim for Change program.

"It's important to me, in case she's ever at a pool, she can take care of herself if I'm not there to help her," Rosario said.

Children in ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods have less access to public pools or indoor swimming pools at schools because those areas are less likely to be able to afford them.

Basic swimming skills are no less important around private and apartment-building or hotel swimming pools. Last winter, following an unprecedented spike in pool drownings in 2011, the Hennepin County Water Safety Task Force was formed, coordinated by North Memorial Medical Center and Abbey's Hope Charitable Foundation.

They set up safety sessions at apartment buildings with pools, including instruction and demonstrations from teachers for Chanhassen-based Foss Swim School. The task force's programs aren't directed only at minorities, but some of the populations they are trying to reach are minority-heavy.

The younger, the better

Shannon Kinstler, who manages aquatics programs for the YMCAs of the Greater Twin Cities, agrees it's best to catch would-be swimmers when they're young. The younger children are, the easier it is to teach them to swim, before they've built up any fears or embarrassment, she said.

Kinstler oversees a five-year-old program that teaches basic water safety to 2,600 minority children a year. The program received a $35,000 grant from Abbey's Hope in April.

Rather than being dropped off by parents, the children are bused to Y locations from all across the metro area through partnerships with other youth organizations.

This approach works better than trying to teach whole families, she said, because "they didn't always show up when we did it that way, because adults who aren't comfortable with water themselves are harder to convince."

On a recent Friday, dozens of children who live at the Minnetonka Heights low-income apartment complex were at the Ridgedale YMCA for their first swimming session of the summer.

More than 20 kindergartners wearing float belts around their waists began by gripping the side of the pool, some fearfully, before gradually heading out into the water clutching swim noodles at their instructors' coaxing.

The program includes teenage volunteers who have grown up with the program and live at Minnetonka Heights, so they are already familiar with the students.

As the older kids romped around a nearby playground, waiting for their turn in the pool, Riley Robinson, 9, got a stern but gentle reminder from a supervisor on what to do if someone falls in a river.

"You should not jump in after them yourself," she said. "You should run and find the nearest person. But first throw them something that floats, if you can find something."

Fifth-grader Tion Henderson, on his fourth year with the water-safety program, said his favorite thing to do in the pool is swim on his back, and that if he goes in a boat he has to wear a life jacket. Why does his mother want him in swimming lessons?

"So she can get me out of the house," he said, smiling. Yolanda Henderson, whose 17-year-old twins also learned to swim through the YMCA program, says she regrets never having learned herself.

"I was going to take lessons at the Y myself a couple of times but it didn't work out," she said.

"Single moms don't have the time." She said she believes there is a cultural difference that contributes to fewer blacks knowing how to swim.

"As a culture, for us, if your parents took you to the pool, if you can't learn it there, you won't get it," she said. "More white parents put their kids in classes you pay for."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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