Learn to swim program at UNCW provides lessons for children in underserved communities

Updated: Jun. 19, 2019 at 3:39 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Ann Freeman found the numbers alarming.

Freeman, the assistant secretary to the UNCW Board of Trustees who has started a learn to swim pilot program at the university for children who might not otherwise be able to afford lessons, said her research revealed the rate of drowning for African Americans is three to five times higher than that of whites.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children ages 5-19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in a pool than white kids of the same age, and regardless of race, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1-4.

“For me, being at the beach or going to the river or different things like that, I knew I didn’t know how to swim,” said Freeman, who grew up in Holden Beach and developed the idea for the program while conducting research for her MPA thesis project at UNCW. "I see (the program) as an opportunity for kids here to know how to swim.

"I want to see it move beyond just UNCW as a partner because it is a need. We have kids here who have never even been to the ocean. I just want to see some changes made and I think having a positive impact, giving the kids things to do but also, most importantly, teaching them a life skill. This is something they'll have forever."

Wednesday was the third day that 19 kids ages 6-16 from Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church gathered at Seahawk Natatorium on the UNCW campus to get lessons. Members of the school’s swimming and diving team were in the pool helping with everything from learning to float to basic strokes to diving.

Nikki Felder has four children in the program and said she and her husband could not have afforded swim lessons for their kids but their aunt attends Macedonia church and told Felder about Freeman’s project.

Like many in the program, Felder’s two girls and two boys were apprehensive at first and had trouble overcoming their fear of the water but they’re sticking with it and improving daily.

"My youngest son, the 6-year-old, screamed the entire time (on Day 1)," Felder remembered. "Three of the four did not want to return. Today, they're striving. They're making strides towards buoyancy, being able to float so it's a process."

That process is also rewarding for UNCW swim coach Jason Memont.

Swimmers on the Seahawks team show up freshman year with better than average skills and Memont and his staff then fine tune them.

Working with kids who are sometimes afraid to even let go of the side of the pool provides a different, refreshing perspective for the coach.

“The attitude and excitement they bring everyday makes our job that much easier,” Memont said. “There are two young ladies who I think are both 14 years old and they are terrified. The first day, there was screaming and crying and everything but they keep coming back every day ready to do more and be better. That willingness to learn means everything.”

After Wednesday’s lessons, UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli gave a brief speech to the kids while they had lunch in the media room at Trask Coliseum.

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