Merlene Davis: Free swimming lessons for public third graders could save lives

Herald-Leader columnistJune 2, 2014 

  • Check your skills

    How water competent are you and your children?

    About 54 percent of Americans cannot swim. Just 40 percent of parents say their children ages 4-17 can perform all five basic swimming skills, yet 92 percent say that their child is likely to enjoy water activities this summer. Below is a list of the five basic swimming skills. Can you or your children pass the test?

    ■ Can you jump or step into water above your head and return to the surface?

    ■ Can you float or tread water for one minute?

    ■ Can you turn around in the water and find an exit?

    ■ Can you swim 25 yards or the length of a pool?

    ■ Can you exit the water without using a ladder?

    Information: To learn more about adult or child swimming lessons at the YMCA of Central Kentucky, visit

For two or three years during my early life, my mother ordered my sister, brother and me to walk a couple of miles to Douglass Park in Owensboro for summer afternoon swimming classes sponsored by the Red Cross.

I don't remember how many days the classes were offered, but I managed to learn how to float and do belly flops without drowning.

But we didn't get to practice those skills very often, because the only pool black people were allowed to use was so far away. Exhausting daily chores came first.

In other words, I'm an adult and I still can't swim.

I'm not alone.

According to the American Red Cross, about 33 percent of blacks and 50 percent of whites say they could pass a water competency test that involves floating, entering water above their heads, and swimming for 25 yards.

What's worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black kids ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at a rate that is five times higher than that of white kids.

That's why the YMCA of Central Kentucky is taking third-graders at Arlington, Booker T. Washington Academy, Cardinal Valley, Harrison, William Wells Brown and Russell Cave elementary schools out of the classroom and into a swimming pool to learn basic safety skills.

Through Lexington Swims, for two hours on Thursday, those students will learn how to float, how to spot a person in distress and what to do if they find themselves in danger in the water.

Instructors at each of the Ys will include members of the University of Kentucky swim team.

It is a pilot program by the local Y, the public schools and Bates Security, which is sponsoring the event as well as footing the bill for swimming lessons during an eight-week course at the Y.

"It is a new initiative for us," said Julie Balog, vice president of marketing and communications at the YMCA. "It has been done in other places, but we haven't done it locally. The YMCA has taught more people to swim than anyone in the country."

Balog said statistics from the YMCA noted that 70 percent of black kids and 60 percent of Hispanic kids cannot swim and that swim lessons could decrease the likelihood of drowning by as much as 88 percent.

So the Y came up with Lexington Swims as a way of targeting young children who are at risk of fulfilling that statistic. The students will be bussed to a Y facility close to their school for morning or afternoon sessions.

"We want the kids in our community to learn safety skills and how to be safe around water," said David Martorano, president and CEO of YMCA. "Many don't get the opportunity to do that."

Follow-up swim lessons will be offered through the fall, he sad.

I probably should look into adult lessons and try again to learn. My sister did, and so did my brother, who spent about six years in the Navy.

By learning, I would at least save money spent on giant inner tubes for myself.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:

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