A cowbell sounds across the Hopewell Community Center swimming pool as a swim instructor announces that Dante* is moving on to Station Three. The whole room erupts into applause for Dante before returning to their lessons. Ryan Nester, the SwimRVA Learn-To-Swim Program Coordinator, is in the water supporting a student learning to float. It’s obvious she’s a little scared, but that’s what Station One is for: students who are fearful of the water. Ryan ran her and two other Station One students through a variety of challenges and exercises, teaching them how to get their heads under the water and to push air out through their noses. By the end of the 45 minute class, I watched all three of those kids ring the bell and move on to Station Two.
Ryan Nester supports a Station One student as she learns to float.
Ryan with his three Station One students.
Conquering fears, cheering for each other, learning practical skills, it’s all part of SwimRVA’s Learn-To-Swim program offered to Hopewell second-graders through their school curriculums. Each of the seven learning stations focuses on a specific set of skills like breath control, floating, freestyle, and diving. But the best part? It’s free to students who may not have the opportunity to take swim lessons outside of school.
“The fact that these classes are free to the families makes all the difference. Not everyone has it in their budget to take classes for something they consider an unnecessary skill… So when parents hear we are offering these classes for free, and that we’ve worked it into their school curriculum… not only are we getting the kids that love to swim and can’t believe they’re getting to go… we’re also getting my personal favorite: those that are doubtful of their abilities down to those scared stiff of the water,” said Ryan.**
SwimRVA does more than just teach kids to swim, they boost self-esteem and encourage new friendships by noting the achievements of each child. When a student completes a station, Ryan and his team make a point to pause and announce the student has moved forward in the program, and the kid gets to ring a loud cowbell to get everyone’s attention. They even take a moment for everyone to clap and cheer for the station graduate.
A student rings the cowbell to get his classmates’ attention. In just a moment, a swim instructor will announce that the student is moving on to station two.
“After a class or two, you can see a profound difference in their confidence, self-esteem, and how they carry themselves… Suddenly they’re standing up taller, making eye contact, high-fiving or shaking hands. There’s a clear impact on how they view themselves (and life in general) after a small taste of success. My biggest reward is seeing them come back to continue learning to swim. Some have even gone on to join my swim team or coach Jacob’s water polo team.”**
SwimRVA, in cooperation with the Hopewell Community Center, is a John Randolph Foundation grantee. We awarded this grant because we want to drown proof Hopewell by teaching every Hopewell second-grader how to swim. With more than 75% of Hopewell students living in poverty, these youth are the least likely to learn to swim on their own. As a result, they are not only denied an opportunity for health and a better quality of life, but they are also put at grave risk. Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children under 14. Together, we are tackling this major health concern.
“The Learn-to-Swim program is unique in that we are able to reach out to families who may have never considered taking lessons before, and because it’s done while they are at school, not only are we helping them learn a skill that’s going to keep them healthy and fit for their entire lives, but we’re also building self-esteem and confidence, and maybe a new friendship or two that hopefully lasts just as long. But it wouldn’t have the same reach, we wouldn’t be able to effect those who would benefit the most without the support from the John Randolph Foundation.”**
At the end of the lesson, I watched the students take turns jumping into the water. Many of them started out just like Ryan’s students: scared and unsure of themselves, but thanks to the Learn-To-Swim program and its reach to Hopewell through the Hopewell Community Center they are confident and excited to get in the pool. One moment that touched me deeply was watching the girl I described earlier turn back before heading to the locker room. She embraced Ryan and thanked him, no longer fearful to dive in.
Ryan’s student embraces him and says thank you after a swim lesson.
* Fictional name
** Quotes from an email interview with Ryan NesterTags: Free swim lessons, Grants, Hopewell Community Center, Learn-to-Swim, Nonprofit, Partnership, Philanthropy, SWIMRVA, Youth Development
This post was written by Jennifer Brown