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St. Louis Nonprofit Urges Black Families To Teach Their Children To Swim To Save Lives

The club offers about 10 sports programs for boys and girls, including basketball and football. But it also exposes black children to sports like swimming, soccer and tennis.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis Region
The Swim On Foundation launched the Learn to Swim campaign to address racial disparities in swimming. The foundation aims to reduce drowning rates among African Americans by encouraging families to enroll children in swimming lessons.

Swim On Foundation, a local nonprofit, is launching a summer swimming campaign to encourage Black families to take swimming lessons and help keep their children from drowning.

Black people ages 5 to 19 drown at more than five times the rate of white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black adults across the region should learn how to swim so they can keep their children from drowning, said Lisa McMullin, co-founder of Swim On Foundation.

“We learned the terrible statistics that show the racial disparities of drowning in the Black community, the numbers are awful,” McMullin said. “So we decided the campaign should focus on the Black community to try and encourage swim lessons, which can reduce drowning by 88%.”

McMullin, who is white, helped found the organization in memory of her 22-month-old son Nicholas, who drowned in a family member's pool in 1982. McMullin said she had no idea how many children drowned each year or of the racial disparities in drowning rates until her son accidentally drowned.

“Drowning is the most preventable accidental injury, that in particular, learning how to swim and learning how to roll over and float, which is something that very young children can learn how to do, is possible and that would have saved our child's life,” McMullin said.

Historically, many Black families faced racial discrimination at pools or didn’t have access to them. Many Black children drown because they do not know how to swim.

Since municipal pools barred Black people from swimming during the 1950s and '60s, Black families often carry generational fear of swimming, said Ayanna Rakhu, a Swim On Foundation board member.

Black people need to take swimming lessons to help reduce those fears, she said.

Rakhu took her first swimming lesson at 6. From age 8 to 12, she began swimming competitively and soon after became a lifeguard. While working in some area pools, she rarely saw other Black people in the water.

“Fear is a huge barrier. It could be fear of drowning. It could be, ‘Oh, my grandmother told me we don't do this or my mom says don't go near the pool,’ so there's some generational traumas there,” she said.

Rakhu said many Black women do not enter the water because they do not know what the chlorine will do to their hair and they do not have proper swim caps to make sure their hair is not damaged.

Rakhu understands the fear Black people have with swimming but wants more Black families to make themselves aware of drowning statistics and take swimming lessons to help save lives.

Parents can find information on summer swimming lessons and scholarships here.

Follow Andrea on Twitter:@drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.