In a city famous for its sunshine, warm weather, miles of oceanfront and sparkling blue waters, it’s no wonder Joe Batarse has his hands full. “The city of Los Angeles is very water-oriented, and we see it as our mission to involve children in water activities at an early age, and get them the kind of experience they need to be safe in any kind of aquatic activity,” says the 49-year-old aquatics director.
With 49 seasonal pools and 15 year-round pools located throughout the traffic-ridden, widespread Los Angeles metro area, Batarse works full-time encouraging kids to visit their nearby facility and incorporate swimming as part of their lives. He handles a vastly diverse population and tries to reach all those demographics by starting them young, which he says is not easy.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle… with respect to athleticism and sports and any kind of activities,” says the 30-year aquatic veteran.“There are so many competing interests that kids don’t have to leave the door to entertain themselves.” Age 11 and 12 is when he says they lose interest and turn to other activities. “We hope to engage some of the kids and keep them interested to have good health habits for a lifetime,” he says.
He hopes that the industry will keep up with the changing times and children’s popular activities as well. While targeting minorities is a big part of his agenda, getting any children to swim is good, he says. To do so, he makes sure new pools get staggered around the city to cover all areas. Then he works to standardize training and programming so they can be replicated from pool to pool.
In areas where kids don’t have their own transportation, Batarse sets up vans and buses in the summer. This also helps draw in the minority populations who often lack opportunities to swim. He contracts with the Los Angeles United School District to incorporate different elements into the facilities for the students’ use and provide programs that make the pools usable for the community as well as outside school hours.
He also starts recruiting lifeguards, particularly in the minority populations, at an early age. Through lessons, swim teams and junior lifeguard programs, he tries to capture minorities’ interest and engage them long enough to work as locker room attendants at 15, and then official lifeguards at 17. “We feel 17 is the appropriate age,” he says. “We have a reverence for the job. It is a profession, and to maintain that level of professionalism is to be mature and developed enough.”
There’s proof that his method works. In 2005, the latest numbers available, Batarse saw 1.39 million attendees come through his aquatic facilities, and he says numbers were up in 2006. He attributes this to ensuring the lowest costs while staying competitive against Los Angeles County and the city of Santa Clarita, both responsible for a large number of neighborhood pools in the area.
Even with those successes, however, Batarse knows he — along the whole of aquatics — has a long way to go. “We have to stem the tide by making kids more aware what kind of programs [are available],” he says. “We have to better promote ourselves and the interests of being involved in these programs.”