With St. Louis in peak summer mode, more and more people are cooling off in the water, whether or not they know how to swim.

Sixty-four percent of African-American children can’t swim, compared to 40 percent of their white peers, according to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis.

“Swimming is a life skill, much like riding a bicycle or learning how to use a computer,” said Lisa Kramer, Gateway Region YMCA program director and swim lesson trainer. “Unlike other hobbies, being a strong swimmer is a life-saving skill that all children should have access to develop.”

African-American children have a fatal-drowning rate three times higher than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These racial disparities in water safety gap can be traced to a variety of cultural, historical, and socioeconomic factors.

The Fairground Park pool riot happened 50 years ago this summer.  On June 21, 1949, when 30 to 40 black youth showed up at the newly integrated municipal pool, whites gathered outside the fence and shouted threats and obscenities, just before violence erupted.

This cultural backdrop makes it all the more important to reduce racial disparities when it comes to swimming. The USA Swimming Foundation study found that if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that their child will learn how to swim.

One local organization leading the way to reversing this trend is the Gateway Region YMCA, which is offering free, year-round water safety evaluations for everyone ages three and older. The session, conducted by trained YMCA swim instructors, takes just a few minutes to assess basic water safety skills needed to be a competent swimmer.

Formal swim lessons have been proven to reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children ages one through four. And while many local families don’t have access to a pool or the financial means for swim lessons, the YMCA aims to bridge this gap with affordable lessons.

Beginning in fall, the Carondelet, Emerson, and South City branches of the YMCA will offer $5 swim lessons for members and $10 for non-members who qualify for financial assistance. The Monsanto Family and O’Fallon Park branches will offer the same rates, regardless whether participants qualify for financial assistance.

The Gateway Region YMCA has 21 branches across St. Louis and Southwest Illinois that can conduct swim evaluations and offer swimming lessons. You do not need to be a member to participate. To schedule a water safety evaluation or inquire about swim lessons, contact your local YMCA branch at www.gwrymca.org/locations.

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