On a chilly Tuesday in February, over a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders from Hamline Elementary started swimming lessons at Hamline University. Excited and nervous, they shrieked jubilantly, kicking their feet at the pool’s edge. For some, this was brand new — their first time swimming.

These children were participants in Safety Around Water, a nationwide introductory swimming program that aims to teach water safety to historically marginalized communities. The curriculum has been implemented by YMCAs across the country, likely saving hundreds of lives.

In my work as a swim instructor, I’ve witnessed the challenge, joy and confidence gained in building this life-saving skill.

Last week, the Minnesota House voted to allocate the requested $500,000 to HF 1341, a bill that aims to provide water safety education to youth across the state. The catchphrase is “10,000 kids, 10,000 lakes,” and the funding will provide formal swimming education, lifeguard training and swim instructor certification to communities in need. The funds can be used to enroll low-income students in lessons at community pools or to bring lessons to a specific group that needs them, such a residents of an affordable housing complex with a pool.

The bill seeks to address overwhelming racial disparities in youth water safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three youth drownings occur every day, and black children are three times as likely to drown as white children.

The tumultuous racial history of swimming pools is a major factor in these inequities. Black Americans were systematically denied the right to swim until the mid-20th century. As a study by the USA Swimming Foundation notes, there is only a 13% chance a child will learn to swim if their parent is a nonswimmer. The Safety Around Water program is designed to break the cycle of inherited fear of swimming, empower kids and save lives.

The bill is still awaiting approval in the Senate, where it was introduced by Republican Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville and directed to the Environment and Natural Resources Legacy Finance Committee. If approved, the funding will derive from the Legacy Trust Fund, which strives to preserve important cultural, artistic, environmental and natural resources for future generations. Minnesota voters agreed to establish the fund in 2008 by increasing the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent until 2034.

Swim safety is a matter of public health and equity, and a worthy use of state funds. In addition to preventing injuries and deaths, swimming can be a vital way to engage with community, overcome fears and stay active. Swimming invites exploration, curiosity, wonder.

Thinking of those children at Hamline, all the gleeful splashing and vigorous bubble-blowing, I feel a swell of optimism for the future of swimming in Minnesota. I bet their kids will learn how to swim.

 

Glenna Colerider-Krugh, Roseville, is a lifeguard, swim instructor and graduate student.