Local YMCA offering swim lessons at subsidized cost, instructor working to break racial barrier

PITTSBURGH — Learning to swim is a rite of passage for many kids, but for Black and Brown children, racial barriers have kept them from the pool and the result has been deadly.

According to the CDC black children drown in swimming pools at rates nearly eight times more than white children of the same age. In that same report, it also reveals that 64 percent of black people have no swimming skills at all.

“[There is a stigma that] Black folks can’t swim,” said Aaron Gibson the Regional Executive Director of the Pittsburgh YMCA. “[And] there is a history with segregated pools, not having access to the pool; it’s become a generational thing.”

To move forward, experts say first we have to acknowledge our past.

In the 1920s, public pools flourished in cities across America, but their success was often based on the exclusion of Black people. Whether by law or practice, Blacks weren’t allowed. And when that ended in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act; the damage was done.

“If they would go swim, they would get beat up, they would get jumped so what folks would do is they wouldn’t let their kids go swim,” Gibson explained.

But Gibson believes in being proactive.

“I’m the executive director of a YMCA and we have a pool,” Gibson said.

The branch offers lessons daily, subsidizing the cost based on the family’s needs, and Gibson said it’s having that type of access and awareness that will save lives.

“What you have to do, is what we are doing right here, outreach. You have to educate folks on why it’s important to learn how to swim and more importantly for me water safety.”

“Knowing how to breath control, knowing how to fall in get back to the wall safely, pull themselves out,” said Marie Leska-DuPont, the Aquatics Programming Coordinator for the Thelma Lovette YMCA.

Dupont has taught swim lessons for 20 years and said it is very common to see entire families who’ve experienced some sort of water trauma, whether it be discrimination, a near drowning, or just an uncomfortable situation at a pool. But she said it is important to overcome these obstacles.

“They are more of a slow and steady learner; you have to overcome that fear that comes with a traumatic experience. But those are the most satisfying when you walk away knowing the kid that wouldn’t even touch the water can now swim,” Leska-DuPont said.

Leska-DuPont said teaching a child to swim is a commitment.

“One six-week cycle will at least teach the kid water safety awareness, they will be able to jump in get out do basic movements usually within one cycle, to be able to swim laps that vary on the kid,” Leska-DuPont said.

Gibson said the work really begins at home.

“For me, I am taking it personally because I was never really into swimming until I had my son start swimming competitively,” Gibson shared.

Now, he is breaking barriers.

“Sadly, when he goes to these competitions if there are 200 to 300 swimmers, he may be one out of ten persons of color,” Gibson said.

The Thelma Lovetta YMCA said its goal is not only to teach swimming but to create change.

“I think one of my favorite moments is when grandparents or parents are learning how to swim, we see them come in for family swim for the first time with their kids and they have that confidence to get in the water and take a class and swim around and play with their kids. It’s great to see,” Leska-DuPont said.

“Take advantage and learn water safety and learn how to swim,” Gibson.

The Thelma Lovetta YMCA offers their community rate to both members and non-members for swim lessons, and from there rates are subsidized for each family, to learn more visit the Thelma Lovette YMCA.

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