More children under the age of 5 drown in Florida than in any other state, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Looking at drowning rates by race, African Americans and Hispanics top the list. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that disparity is highest among children 5 to 14 years old — African American children in that age range are almost three times more likely to drown than white children in the same age range.
After reading these reports, Will Reich, the president of the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club, felt the need to make an impact and potentially prevent the death of a child.
“It is so crucial –– with South Florida having all this water –– for us to address this issue, which is the danger of drowning,” said Reich, 33, a resident of Miami Shores. “When students and children don’t have any exposure to swimming at an early age, it puts them at a significant risk when they’re teenagers and adults.”
Derek Cole, a lifelong resident of Miami now residing in Overtown, says the high drowning rates among African Americans and other minorities is an issue that goes deeper than race.
“The kids in the wealthier neighborhoods are exposed to more swimming pools, but in the urban areas, they are not,” said Cole, 64. “It’s as simple as that.”
So Reich and the club decided to offer swimming lessons in Overtown at the Gibson Park city pool, a new and under-utilized pool, according to Reich.
The Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club works closely within the Overtown community. In crafting this swim program, Reich says he made sure to consider the financial needs of the people living in the neighborhood.
“This particular program is a grant program where we’re paying for students in the Overtown area to come out here to Gibson Pool to receive swim lessons from the City of Miami’s Park Department,” Reich said.
Fifty kids will receive free lessons for the month of May –– eight 45-minute lessons in total. They can continue their lessons for the rest of the summer and pay $20 each — rather than the $45 a month that Gibson Park regularly charges.
The club recently recognized Andre Dawson, a Hall of Fame baseball player who spent his last season with the Florida Marlins, as the Michael Shore Citizen of the Year for Miami. Dawson was present during a ribbon cutting ceremony before the lessons began.
“When you’re in the water, you never know when your life is going to be in danger,” said Dawson, 59, stressing the importance of the lessons Kiwanis provides. “You may even have to save a life.”
According to Dawson, that’s the perfect reason to get kids comfortable in the water at a young age.
Ruth Smerznak, a stay at home mother of and resident of Overtown, brought her seven kids to Gibson Park for the free swimming lessons.
“We’re really grateful for it,” said Smerznak, 45. “They had minimal swim lessons in the past but being a large family, it would be hard to get them all up to speed on how to swim without the Kiwanis Club’s generous offer.”
Ivan, Smerznak’s 14-year-old son, said he enjoyed learning the techniques of freestyle swimming.
“I know [how to swim] pretty well, but I’m trying to get to where I can swim really well instead of just surviving,” Ivan said.