Lack of available pools did not prevent North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department (MCPRD) from implementing its 2014 “Every Child Can Swim” free swim lesson program. The classes started as a department initiative in response to research showing that swimmers identifying as minorities are three times more likely to drown than their nonminority counterparts. As a result of the research and after recent drowning incidents in unguarded water, the department established a vision to provide water safety instruction and free swim lessons to every county youth ages 3–12 before graduating from 5th grade.
“This is a water safety issue,” says Park and Recreation Aquatics Manager Genni Reel. “It’s just as important as putting on a bike helmet or wearing your seat belt. Learning to swim saves lives.”
The program began in May at Ray’s Splash Planet, a family-friendly daily admissions indoor water park that features a zero-depth entry zone, two birthday party facilities and a two-story indoor waterslide. Staff assessed and reviewed the nonpeak times to offer swim lessons. After settling on a time to hold the program, staff decided to host swim lessons in four-week sessions each Saturday morning. In the meantime, training was scheduled and completed for water safety instructors.
Since its inception, the community response to the free swim lesson program has been overwhelming. The first four-week session drew 60 participants. In June, 127 children participated, and in July, 132 children participated.
To meet the facility demand for free lessons, MCPRD began a partnership with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to open a second pool at the West Charlotte High School for free swim lessons each Saturday morning. The Second Ward High School National Alumni Foundation partnered with MCPRD to market the free swim lesson program in the minority community. Local television coverage has been provided by CBS affiliate WBTV 3 and My Fox News with live in-studio staff interviews to publicize the free swim lesson program. News talk radio station WBT 1110 also conducted live radio interviews to promote the swim lessons.
In addition to the Every Child Can Swim program, MCPRD has extended its mission by offering weekly free swim lessons at its neighborhood pools at Cordelia Park and Double Oaks Park. Based on historical data, the department estimates more than 2,000 swim lessons will be given at the outdoor pools this year. Funding for the free swim lesson program will be absorbed in the 2015 current level operating budget.
MCPRD is well on its way to fulfilling its vision of teaching every child how to swim before they move on from 5th grade and, we hope, preventing more tragic drownings in the future.
James Alsop, CPRP, is the Division Director of Enterprise Services for North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department.