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200 Black and brown children get free swimming lessons, and safety, in Kansas City, Kansas

Two children at a swimming pool.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Rhys Pearson, 7, and his sister, Kiyomi Pearson, stand in front of Parkwood Pool after completing their swimming lesson Tuesday. They are two of around 200 Kansas City, Kansas, elementary students taking part in free swimming lessons at Parkwood.

Black children are at higher risk of drowning than white children. A public-private partnership in Kansas City, Kansas, tries to address the problem by providing free swimming lessons for 200 local students.

Michelle Slaughter treasures her memories of summers at the only public pool in Kansas City, Kansas.

But she never learned to swim. And she wants her grandchildren to have the crucial skill.

So, this week she took seven of her grandkids to Parkwood Pool, the place she enjoyed so much as a kid, so they could learn what she didn’t: how to swim.

“They have to be safe and be able to swim and be careful without drowning,” she said. “(Then) they can teach me.”

The swimming lessons at Parkwood come free thanks to a partnership between GEHA Health, a health insurance company, the YMCA, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Kansas Parks and Recreation, and Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools.

The first of two four-day sessions kicked off Monday. Due to segregation, racism, and a lack of access to swimming facilities and education about water safety, many Black and brown children do not know how to swim. This partnership hopes to begin to change that.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Under the watchful eyes of an instructor, a student strokes through the water at Parkwood Pool in Kansas City, Kansas.

Gene Willis, a GEHA representative, said his company focuses its philanthropic work on the things that lead to healthy lives.

“There are issues regarding the effects of segregation that still affect swimming ability today,” he said. “So you then have multiple generations of people who were looking at water and pools with trepidation, with apprehension. And what we're looking at now are ways to disrupt that.”

Parkwood Pool reopened this season after a two-year hiatus due to lifeguard shortages and the pandemic. In June 2021, despite being closed, the pool was filled. A 13-year-old boy, the son of Ugandan immigrants, climbed the fence and was unable to make it out of the deep end. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition and later died.

That, Willis said, is why swimming lessons matter.

The USA Swimming Foundation says 64% of Black children in America either have limited or no swimming ability compared to 45% of Hispanic children and 40% of white children. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics from 1991-2019 show Black children ages 10-14 drown in swimming pools at rates 7.6 times higher than white children.

Swim instructor, Mackenzie Jones, holds a thank-you note from one of her students. Jones said she loves watching the kids progress and gain confidence in their swimming skills.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Swim instructor, Mackenzie Jones, holds a thank-you note from one of her students. Jones said she loves watching the kids progress and gain confidence in their swimming skills.

Sabrah Parsons, aquatic director for the Wyandotte County YMCA, said several drowning deaths over the past few years have impacted the community and local schools.

“This partnership has tried to make a huge difference in that, we are doing everything we can to ensure that drowning doesn’t happen in this community,” she said. “Even just attending one swim lesson enables youth to have an 88% reduced chance of drowning.”

GEHA paid for lessons from area YMCA swim instructors for 200 Kansas City, Kansas, elementary school children from neighborhoods near Parkwood.

Gabrielle Pearson brought her two kids, 6-year-old Kiyomi and 7-year-old Rhys to swimming lessons at Parkwood on Tuesday. Pearson said she knows how to swim, but she understands many others in the Black community never learned.

“It is really important for Black communities to have access to swimming pools, to have access to lessons and stuff like that because it helps to reduce the fear and the stigma that surrounds swimming,” said Pearson. “There’s no reason that Black children and Black people can’t swim and can’t love the water.”

Pearson said when more Black children have access to swimming lessons like the ones at Parkwood, worlds open up.

“You might see some Olympic medalists coming out of the Quindaro area,” she said. “It's all about access.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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