Kelly Gaines
Stephanie Tomalis Kelly Gaines

Kelly Gaines is on a mission to transform children all around Charlotte, N.C. into “honorary water-safety rangers.”

Each year, she talks to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kindergartners, first- and second graders about the importance of being water-wise.

“Do I have to swim with an adult?” she asks the class.

“No!” the students reply.

“Yes, I do!”

Yes, even adults have to swim with adults. It’s one of several water-safety commandments she drills into their heads.

“I try to be very animated. I’m like a grandparent. I get them all worked up and then I leave,” Gaines says with a laugh.

She’s the owner of a swim school, Charlotte Aquatics, and serves on the board of the local Safe Kids Worldwide chapter.

It was a near tragedy that put the licensed physical therapist on this trajectory.

Her daughter was around 18 months old when she fell into the backyard swimming pool trying to reach a toy. The near drowning was swift and silent.

“I foolishly thought that if a child fell into a pool, there would be screaming and splashing,” Gaines recalls. “There was nothing.”

She immediately enrolled her child in swim lessons at Charlotte Aquatics. “I was so impressed, I ended up buying the place,” she says.

In addition to conducting her Water Safety Story Time, Gaines partners with an organization to provide free swim lessons to families with low incomes. Plus, children with autism can take lessons at a discounted rate. Due to these efforts and more, the U.S. Swim School Association honored her with the Humanitarian of the Year award in 2017.

Her background as a physical therapist has proven beneficial in her aquatics career. She trains her staff on how to engage with children at certain developmental stages and what milestones they should be hitting to better track their progress.

“It’s an amazing fit,” she says. “I’m educated in how children develop physically and mentally, so we created our swim program taking the best of everything we learned from other programs and added my education in physical therapy.”

Nearly losing her daughter in a drowning accident was life-altering, but she turned that experience around and replaced it with something positive.

“Not that I’m glad my daughter almost drowned,” Gaines says, “but it led me here.”