The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities is in Minnesota, “The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” The Twin Cities themselves — Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs — have nearly 950 lakes of their own. It’s a place where knowing how to swim and, more generally, how to be safe around the water in lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and pools, is critically important.

The Twin Cities also has lots of kids. All kinds of kids. The rapidly changing demographics of our metro area are reflected in large numbers of children of color, many of whom have not spent extended time around lakes, ponds and pools, and who have rarely learned to swim.

Studies show that children of color are especially vulnerable to water-related accidents and drowning. The reasons are many: cultural acceptance (or non-acceptance) of swimming; fear; and the economics of access — swim lessons cost money and are not always available, affordable or seen as essential. There also is a generational factor: parents who don’t know how to swim or protect others around water aren’t able to teach their kids swimming and lifesaving skills.

The YMCA — where organized swim lessons were invented more than a century ago — believes that all people, especially children, need to learn how to be safe around water. Since 2007, the YGTC has targeted “water safety” as a high priority, with special attention on the children most vulnerable to swimming accidents. It’s all part of our Y’s commitment to youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

To that end, we’ve developed strong partnerships with the Abbey’s Hope Charitable Foundation and Hawkins, Inc. to provide basic water safety skills to youth populations at higher risk for drowning. These non-traditional swimming lessons focus almost exclusively on prevention and self-rescue techniques for both lakes and pools. The lessons also empower the students to be “water safety ambassadors” to their extended families, spreading the program’s great benefits to broader audiences.

The Saint Paul Downtown YMCA (a branch of the YGTC) collaborates with local community groups to make water safety lessons available to urban and underserved students. Those groups include the local Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, charter schools and after school program centers. One of the newest and most innovative partnerships we’ve developed is an outreach to the Somali community facilitated by the Saint Paul Police Department.

The Police Department contacted the Y to discuss program possibilities for women and girls from local Somali centers. This community has had very limited exposure to swimming and water activities. Customs and religious beliefs ask that females be completely covered outside the home, specifically around unrelated males, making participation in traditional swimming lessons very difficult for Somali girls.

The mothers in this particular group of Somali women recognized the need for swimming lessons and aquatics education for their daughters. They had been unable to find a pool to meet their needs, in terms of privacy aand affordability. Our Y was able to step in to help.
The aquatics facility at the Saint Paul Downtown Y does not have outside windows. Access to the Y pool also is easily controlled. This allows us to provide a space where women and girls can swim without restriction. Also, because of generous grants provided by Abbey’s Hope and Hawkins, Inc., a five-session course on water safety could be provided free of charge. We’re extremely grateful to the St. Paul Police Department’s female police officers who donated their time to introduce these girls to the world of swimming and aquatics.

The group of about 25 young women (ages 7-18) was very excited about the opportunity to be in the water. When they first got in the pool, the importance of these classes became immediately apparent. Almost all were still wearing either long sleeves or long pants that, while tight-fitting, were still more difficult to swim in than a traditional swimming suit. Their unfamiliarity with being in the water made it harder for them to stay in appropriate depths without continuous reminders. Without the prior experience or knowledge of dangers specific to the water, being in the pool was simply another new place to play and interact with friends. These experiences provided plenty of opportunity to apply water safety rules we had discussed on land prior to water activities. Y staff encouraged the girls to review why certain safety practices were needed.

Prior to the class, parents filled out an information form that included a question about whether their children could swim. More than 50 percent checked “yes.” In the pool, however, less than 10 percent demonstrated a comfort level in the water or the skills necessary to be proficient swimmers in deep water. This disparity between perceived and actual water proficiency can create a dangerous situation in which parents falsely believe that their children are safe around water.

It was helpful that many of the mothers were able to watch the class and could learn along with their daughters. Initially some of the moms had concerns that we were not teaching the traditional swimming strokes. They wondered why we were teaching self-rescue techniques, such as back floats and treading water. As the sessions progressed these concerns diminished. We’re proud that we’re empowering Somali girls through this access to water safety.

We are now discussing the possibility of the Saint Paul Downtown Y hosting a “women’s only swim,” a time open to all female members who may have various reasons for wanting a more private space in which to exercise and have fun in the pool. It’s all part of our Y’s commitment to serve our entire community!