There are basic life skills kids should have by the time they are 7 or 8. Many of them are no-brainers you can find on parenting websites.
Young children should know how to read, write and compute basic math. They should have strong social skills to interact with others. It wouldn’t hurt if they could make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
There is, however, a basic skill often overlooked until tragedy strikes: knowing how to swim.
Forty percent of Caucasians, 60 percent of Latinos and 70 percent of African Americans do not know how to swim, according to the USA Swimming foundation.
The consequences can be catastrophic. One of the worst drowning tragedies in our nation came in August 2010 when six African-American teenagers, none of whom could swim, drowned in the Red River in Louisiana. One teen had waded into waist-deep water to escape oppressive heat but slipped off a ledge into 25 feet of water. He was rescued by a bystander; friends and relatives who had tried to save him perished. Other family members did not know how to swim and watched helplessly.
Young African Americans are most susceptible to drownings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a four-year study that the fatal drowning rate of African Americans between the ages of 5 and 14 was almost three times higher than whites of the same ages.
These numbers are not lost on Chicago Park District Supt. Michael P. Kelly. He told me the park district gives 40,000 lessons a year, but in some pools “we’re always having trouble getting to capacity.”
Kelly and his staff didn’t have participation numbers available, but he said minority populations are the toughest to crack. That’s one reason the park district is encouraging African Americans and Latinos who start young in its programs to continue advancing until they reach the junior lifeguard program and qualify for certified lifeguard training. Kelly wants them to be role models in their communities and draw more participants.
Access has long been a problem for many African Americans and Latinos. On the leanest budgets, swimming lessons can be too costly.
But in Chicago, “we don’t turn anyone away,” Kelly said. “Money is not an issue.”
Residents need to keep that in mind this week when the park district releases its summer swimming programs. Registration will begin April 7 at parks east of California Avenue and April 8 at parks west of California.
Swimming lessons are not just a summertime thing. They are offered year-round in dozens of indoor facilities. Last Monday there were still openings in the Learn to Swim spring program that begins March 31.
Not knowing how to swim is a cyclical problem for families. Research completed four years ago by the USA Swimming foundation showed that when a parent doesn’t know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in the household will learn.
Certainly we are not born afraid of water. “Water is an attraction,” Eric Fischer, manager of beaches and pools for the park district, said. “Look at water in a puddle. A child goes to it.”
Especially in minority communities, we must stop passing on fear of water to younger generations. It might help to know that the park district offers lessons to adults as well as children.
It’s never too late to learn.