Prince George's Swim Program Focuses on Minority Kids

This story was originally published in October 2010.

If you were in deep water, would you be able to save your own life?

In some minority communities the response may be "yes," but the reality may be "no."

In 2007, Hollywood brought to life a moment of pride with a feature film by that name. But "Pride" couldn't ignore a real-life problem: black kids not hesitant to go in the water, but not knowing how to swim.

This summer, Prince George's County enrolled 350 kids in "Make a Splash." It’s a national effort to reduce drowning among minority kids through free swimming lessons.

"Unfortunately, it is a joke in our community, but it's very serious,” said Tara Eggleston, coordinator of aquatics programs for Prince George’s County. “We've lost a number of youth and adults in our community for lack of knowledge and experience in the water."

In July, 12-year-old Najee Clark drowned in an Upper Marlboro pool. His uncle jumped in to save him and drowned too.

In early August, six black Louisiana teens died after a swimming party turned into a desperate effort to save one another from drowning. Their parents stood on the banks of the red river -- unable swim, unable to help.
A university of Memphis study for the USA Swimming Foundation shows that nearly 70 percent of black kids have little or no swimming ability.
Among Hispanic kids, 58 percent fall into the same category.
Despite knowing that swimming is a life-saving skill, the experts will tell you there's a long list of compelling reasons that some people don't learn how to swim.
"That idea that blacks can't swim is a shorthand for black people, too. You don't need to learn how to swim because black people don't swim," said Dr. Sherri Parks, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland.
"What happened in the United States is that African Americans have been divorced from swimming, that slave masters forbade them to swim just like they forbade them to read," said Parks.
In the 1960s, Blacks were segregated out of community pools. In today's urban centers, there are other issues: for example, reputation.
"There are certain sports that give you school cred. Basketball gives you a lot, football gives you a lot, other sports like swimming may not give you as much," said Parks.
More commonly though, Parks says, it's access. "There are pools in a lot of what were historically black schools that are not being used, that are empty, that are dry. And there are some individuals who are going around trying to rehabilitate them. They need support. They need funds. They need help."

The USA Swimming Foundation study points to access and other hurdles: lack of parental encouragement, personal appearance, financial constraints and the overwhelming predictor of swimming inability, fear.
Fear keeps LaShonda Mancia out of the water. But she enrolled her 6-year-old, John, in the “Make a Splash” program.
"Because I have a fear, I didn't want him to have a fear. And he has an older brother who swims, so he naturally wants to swim, too, even though he doesn't know how," said Mancia.
Experts say parents have to realize that learning to swim isn't for recreation or to train the next Olympic champion.
"Folks in physical education and health education would say, you need to get to the moms. You need to say this is a way to save your babies," said Parks.
Anybody can get in the water.  Everybody needs to be able to swim -- at the very least, to save a life, even your own.
To learn more about swimming classes in Prince George's, visit
To read the USA Swimming Foundation report, visit
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