‘Learn To Swim' Program Aims to Make Lessons Accessible, Address Drowning Impact on Children of Color

Nearly 65 percent of children who died from drowning in Connecticut in the past decade were Black or Hispanic.

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Plenty of people are enjoying time on the shoreline and at lakes and pools this July, and swimming safety is top of mind.

Drowning is one of the top causes of death for all children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, children of color are disproportionately impacted. Nearly 65 percent of kids who drowned in Connecticut in the past decade were Black or Hispanic, according to the Office of the Child Advocate and the Connecticut Child Fatality Review Panel.

A program at the Downtown Hartford YMCA aims to turn those sad statistics around.

With kicks, bubbles and splashes, little swimmers are developing lifesaving skills through the “Learn To Swim” program.

“What I saw today, which really warmed my heart, in particular, one child when he first started, he was deathly afraid of the water. And as you saw today, he was smiling,” Laura Floyd, executive director of the Downtown Hartford YMCA, said.

About 75 kids are taking part in the program, which is now in its second year. Aquatics Director Christie Gonzalez sees the kids in the lessons like her own young son.

“I have a child that has been coming here swimming ever since he was a year old,” Gonzalez said. “He is able to go to the lake or to the beach and swim without me having to have that worry.”

Nearly 65 percent of kids who drowned in Connecticut in the past decade were Black or Hispanic, according to statistics and program at the Downtown Hartford YMCA aims to help children learn how to swim.

It’s a skill program directors believe could save lives, especially when it comes to children of color, who are disproportionately impacted by child drowning.

“We know that children of color, Brown and Black children, drown at a much higher rate than anyone else. And a lot of times that's because they don't have access to or can't afford swimming lessons,” Floyd said.

That is why the “Learn To Swim” program specifically aims to make swimming accessible to low-income families.

“All they would have to do is call us here at the downtown YMCA. They will fill out what's called a financial assistance application,” Floyd said. “They will let them know how much they're going to have to pay based on their income.”

Once a family qualifies for “Learn To Swim,” Floyd said they could be paying as little as $5 to $10 for their kids to take swimming lessons for eight weeks, or the program could be totally free.

“It's so important that they have these lifesaving skills,” Floyd said.

Data from The Office of the Child Advocate and Connecticut Child Fatality Review Panel shows 45 children died from drowning in Connecticut between 2011 to 2021. Of those, 28 were Black or Hispanic.

While drowning is the leading cause of preventable death for kids ages 1 to 4 years old, according to the data, teenagers are also at high risk. That is because they might not wear a life jacket while boating, or might be unsupervised or under the influence of alcohol or drugs near bodies of water.

“Over the same 10-year period that I'm referring to, Connecticut saw more teenagers die from drowning than any other age group, including infants and toddlers,” Sarah Eagan, Director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said. “The majority of those children in the 13- to 17-year-old bracket are Black and Hispanic children, mostly dying, particularly in recent years, open bodies of water.”

The Office of the Child Advocate said the best ways to prevent drowning include supervision, emptying tubs, putting barriers like fences around water, learning emergency skills like CPR, and putting kids in formal swimming lessons.

“Every child should have access to swim instruction, it is a life skill,” Eagan said. “Scale up and build up. Every child should have access to water-safety curriculum. That can be done in gym or in health class, in every school: increasing teenagers’ knowledge of CPR.”

At the Downtown Hartford YMCA, a swimmer accomplishing a new skill is met with cheers.

“It’s really important because families love to go out to beaches and lakes,” Gonzalez said. “Just to have that experience of learning how to swim at the Y can be lifesaving stories somewhere else.”

Along with children of color being disproportionately impacted by drowning, children with disabilities, including autism, are also at high-risk. They are 160 times more likely to die from drowning than their peers, according to the Office of the Child Advocate.

Families that want to enroll their children in "Learn to Swim" can contact the Downtown Hartford YMCA at 860-522-4183.

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