Twin Cities YMCA’s Target Low-Income Kids With Water Safety Skills Lessons

Pioneer Press // By Maricella Miranda

With a water noodle in hand, Marriaunna Martin was ready to swim.

But she wasn't using the noodle as a toy. The flotation device was a safety tool for the 9-year-old and her peers this week at the Blaisdell YMCA in Minneapolis.

For about a month, the Y's swim instructors have been teaching the group water safety skills like how to float on their backs and stomachs, how to tread water and what to do if someone accidentally falls into deep water.

Before the classes, Marriaunna said she was scared to even go into the water -- but not anymore. Now, her favorite thing to do in the pool is jump off the diving board.

"When I started going a lot, I got used to it," she said Wednesday.

The YMCA Twin Cities, which includes 23 branches across the metro, received $70,000 in grants this year from the nonprofit Abbey's Hope and the Minneapolis company Hawkins to teach water safety skills, said Shannon Kinstler, the Y's aquatic director.

The grants will fund lessons for 2,800 children and adults.

Y instructors are taking the classes mobile, too. The Eagan YMCA last month taught water safety to a mobile home community in Inver Grove Heights. The Woodbury YMCA this month took its classes to a median-income townhome complex in Oakdale.

With drownings up this year in Minnesota, officials say the classes are more important than ever. Statewide, there have been 32 nonboating-related drownings as of Thursday, said Tim Smalley, boat and water safety specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources. That compared to 27 drownings last year during the same time.

Swimming education at schools used to be more common, Smalley said.

But these days, fewer students are exposed to such lessons, especially if they come from lower-income families, he said. The Y classes are a great way to start making kids safer.

"Let's face it-- this is the land of 10,000 lakes. At some point everyone will be in or near a lake," Smalley said.

The Y has been offering water safety classes since 2008 with the help of Hawkins, which provides pool chemicals for the Y, Kinstler said. In 2010, Abbey's Hope began donating, too. The nonprofit, named for 6-year-old Abbey Taylor, who died from injuries caused by an improperly maintained pool drain, advocates and educates for safer pools.

The Y's water safety classes shouldn't be confused with swimming lessons, Kinstler said. About 80 percent of the kids at the Y don't know how to swim, officials say. Water safety classes help participants stay safe in the water--even if they don't know how to swim.
Instructors also show kids how to spot unsafe pool drains.

Each participant receives 200 minutes of water safety lessons which are usually made up of three to five classes. Kinstler said. Last year, 2,600 participants took the classes.So far, Y instructors have taught about 1,200 people this year.

Marriaunna, who doesn't know how to swim, is taking the classes as part of a summer camp offered through the nonprofit PPL (Project for Pride in Living). About 17 campers in second through fifth grades are participating in the Blaisdell Y's classes.

Anija White, 7, a camper, said she likes jumping off the diving board and swimming from the deep end to the shallow end. But at first, Anija was so scared of the water that cried whenever she was in it, said Kirsten Flaten, youth programs coordinator at PPL. Flaten said Anija has shown the most improvement in the water among the group's campers. But the opportunity is breaking down barriers for all the kids, she said.

"It's a really important part of their summer," Flaten added.

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