DECATUR — Hot summer months are a great time to take a dip in a pool or lake, but experts say swimming safety must be prioritized to minimize drowning risk.
That risk is even greater for children of color and for children who come from lower income families. A 2017 study done by the USA Swimming Foundation found nearly 64 percent of African-American kids, 45 percent of Hispanic kids and 79 percent of children in families that bring in a household income less than $50,000 have little-to-no swimming ability.
May is also National Water Safety Month, a time to think ahead as schools let out for summer break and kids and families go in search of recreation on the water. The Decatur Family YMCA and the Decatur Park District offer programs and opportunities that provide equal access to their aquatics facilities.
“We want to be inclusive and make sure everybody gets an opportunity to learn how to swim,” said Lori Manning, the YMCA's aquatics director.
According to the USA Swimming study, the reasons behind the disparities that it found range from socioeconomic and racial differences to fears of drowning that children may have picked up from parents who also don't know how to swim.
The YMCA and the park district provide age-tiered swim training programs that allow participants to gradually develop their skills as they grow older. Six months is the earliest age that a child can be enrolled in either program, when a parent will be at their side.
“We want to try and remove any barriers," Manning said.
According to The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States, with children ages 14 and younger making up about one in five people who drown yearly.
While the risk of drowning will always be present when swimming, the CDC said participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce that among children from ages 1 to 4.
In addition to scholarships, another way the Decatur Family YMCA tries to get more at-risk children into a pool for lessons is its "Safety Around Water" program, which was introduced by the national YMCA organization. With it, children from area schools are brought to the facility for free, weeklong, sessions to learn basic swimming skills.
"It's my hope that we find a way to not only offer a weeklong program, but to find a way to keep these kids in a program year-round," Manning said. "That would ideally lead them to swimming on a swim team and enjoying water for the rest of their lives."
So far, Manning said schools such as Robertson Charter, French Academy and organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of Decatur have participated in Safety Around Water courses.
Deandre Coleman's 7-year-old brother Kamari was among the French students who attended their final day of free swim lessons at the YMCA last Tuesday. Coleman, 24, said that his brother has shown interest in continuing swim lessons and that he plans to bring him back and swim with Kamari if that's what he wants to do.
"I think if kids had better access to (swim lessons), I think more kids would do it," Coleman said. "Because I don't really think that many kids are that afraid of water."
Safe swimming skills shouldn't just be practiced in monitored swimming pools. The CDC also found that more than half of fatal and nonfatal water incidents among those age 15 and older happened in natural water settings.
Lake Decatur allows swimming, but only for people who own docks along the shoreline, said Joe Nihiser, lake maintenance supervisor. Those who want to swim in the lake must be with a dock owner and should never swim alone, he said.
"Never go out into the navigational channel, stay close to the shore, and always have some kind of life preserver," Nihiser said. "Anyone under the age of 13 is required to have a life jacket on when a boat is moving."
Nihiser also said Lake Decatur swimmers should be aware of the risk of electric shock drowning, which can happen when electricity from a dock or other powered area seeps into the water and creates a current. Deadly incidents in Alabama, Ohio and New Jersey brought national attention to the danger.
To prevent this from happening on Lake Decatur, Nihiser said all dock areas around the lake are inspected to make sure they aren't creating a current in the water. "(Dock owners) know the guidelines and the requirements," he said.
"Homeowner docks are inspected when they're installed and whenever any upgrades are made," Nihiser said.
Rules and regulations for swimming at Lake Decatur can be found within chapter 66 of the city code, Nihiser said.
Whether in a pool, on a lake or in the ocean, building confidence starts young, said Cheri Farrell, youth director for the Decatur Athletic Club. Farrell said the earlier that a child is introduced to the water, the more comfortable they'll be down the road. She said the facility offers some similar swim programs that the park district and YMCA offer, but it does not provide scholarships.
Regardless of how and where families receive swim lessons, Farrell said taking the time to seek out the right opportunities to learn the skills will make all the difference.
"It's a lifelong skill," she said. "You can do it for the rest of your life, and it's a great, physical activity that everybody can do."
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