At least once a week for about five months, Jalen Brown and other children from South Miami boarded a bus and took the 15-minute drive to Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove for swimming lessons.
Along the way the children, many of whom live in low-income housing, saw “mansions” they dreamed of living in and cars they hoped to afford one day.
The bus ride bridged a gap from their small, historically black community in South Miami to the affluent private school where swimming is part of the routine and not a privilege.
Most of these children, as young as 5 and some 10 and 11, never had a swimming lesson before. Some had never been in a pool. Most didn’t know how to swim.
“Kids who are living in public housing, growing up where finance is a real problem, single-mother households, opportunities for just having access to a pool are limited,” said Simon Codrington Jr., of the South Miami Community Advisory Committee and a longtime resident of the city.
Codrington and a core group of South Miamians set out to change that decades ago by lobbying City Hall to build a public pool.
Even with Florida having the highest drowning rate in the country — and the drowning rate is highest among black children — the fight to build a community pool for the kids who need it most has been filled with years of empty promises and failure.
But now, after four decades of protests and City Hall visits, the mission has finally paid off.
This week, city leaders cut a ribbon on a $1.4 million pool, with three lap lanes, a gentle slope to enter and a splash pad area.
“This has been a long, long, long time in coming,” said Joyce Price, who has lived in South Miami more than 70 years. “I hoped I would live to see it.”
When the pool opened Wednesday, the children immediately showed off the skills they learned at that bigger, fancier pool in the Grove.
“This pool is great,” said Jalen, wearing a Marvel bathing suit and doing the backstroke. When Jalen began lessons in March he didn’t even like to put his head underwater.
“I know how to swim now,” he said.
The pool is at Murray Park, 5800 SW 66th St., in a city that’s 2 1/2 square miles between Coral Gables and Kendall straddling U.S. 1. The park is in the heart of a black community with many working families living in small homes and apartments. The roughly 10-block stretch was federally designated in the 1960s as a revitalization area, Price said.
Next door to the pool is the Gibson Bethel Community Center, where many of the neighborhood’s children go during the summer and after school. For the kids of the area, this is the center of their lives. They walk there to play basketball or run around on the playground or attend events. Nearby is a free health clinic.
The pediatrician in the clinic, Dr. Tina Scott, arranged a partnership between the city and the private school to address the lack of swimming skills she regularly saw in her patients.
“One of the things that I do when I see patients is to ask about water: Do you live near water? Do you have a pool in your backyard? A canal? To make sure that the kids actually know how to swim,” she said. “We didn’t want to have a pool that the children couldn’t use.”
So every week, about 30 kids boarded a van, some of them wearing donated bathing suits and using bags and towels given to them.
When they first started the lessons, some of the children didn’t want to let go of the side of the pool or the teenagers who volunteered to teach them.
Andy DeAngulo, the aquatics director and assistant athletics director at Ransom Everglades, said that since the school’s new pool opened in January 2012, they have opened up to teach underprivileged children how to swim as part of the REACH (Ransom Everglades Athletes Can Help) Program.
“Knowing that we are privileged enough to have an amazing facility, we want to share it with the community,” he said. “We want to make sure we give back so everyone can be water safe.”
At the Ransom pool, they had opportunities they didn’t have back home. At an April lesson, Jalen used a kickboard to get to his swim teacher and then used free time to chase his friend around.
They groaned when it was time to leave and board the van back to the community center.
“That’s my house,” Jalen said as he pointed to a mansion not far from the school. “I’m going to live there one day.”
Back in the 1970s, Leroy “Spike” Gibson, South Miami's first black commissioner, proposed a community pool after a spate of drownings in area canals.
Codrington, who has also been a part of the community effort, said the water is a big threat to the community’s younger generations.
Without a public pool to practice in, the canals that run through the city can end up being a danger for those who never learned basic swimming skills.
Before the pool finally opened Wednesday, the closest county pool was three miles away. That’s far, especially on public transportation. Enterprising kids, eager for a closer dip, would sneak into private backyard pools on the other side of town.
“A single mother who relies on public transportation to get around, 9 times out of 10, she’s not making a lot of trips,” Codrington said.
Besides a close and accessible pool, the kids also didn’t have access to swimming lessons.
Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there are “populations of people who lack basic swim skills.”
Gilchrist has spent much of her career researching drownings. Overall, she says, black children drown at a much higher rate than other kids.
“In swimming pools . . . presumably, you know where the bottom is, you know where the sides are,” she said. “And so one would think that with basic swim skills it should be difficult for an older child or teen to drown in a swimming pool. And yet that's what we were seeing among African Americans.”
Swimming pool drowning rates among school-aged black children are more than five times higher than they are among white kids the same age.
Even with those facts, it wasn’t easy to build a pool in South Miami. The community was divided.
“The people on the south side didn’t want it,” said Deltravis Williams, 35, who said the pool opening was “emotional” for him. “They all have pools.”
Williams says he and many other South Miami natives held on to the hope that one day the promises would be fulfilled.
“This is something we have waited so long for,” said Williams, who was among the first group to leap into the pool and swim.
When Williams was 14, his best friend, Stacey Harrington, who was 12, drowned in a South Miami canal. He said that if there were a pool then, things might have been different.
“Now the kids in this neighborhood will have a safe place to swim,” he said.
Over the years, the residents fought hard for the pool, holding protests and keeping the heat on City Hall. At least two times elected city leaders gave their support. But delays and financial concerns hampered the efforts and thousands of dollars went down the drain.
Commissioner Valerie Newman, who opposed the pool, said she doesn’t believe “a city the size of South Miami can afford to maintain the operational costs of the pool without raising taxes.”
“I can tell by the agenda items they are going to be in trouble come budget time,” she said.
But she was outvoted by her commission colleagues. In February 2013, Miami-Dade County agreed to extend a grant after South Miami’s mayor and city manager approached Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. In April 2013, the city hired a company to start building the pool. Ground was broken in November 2013.
The new pool won’t be opened all the time. A budget squeeze means it will close in mid-September and reopen again next summer.
But for now, it’s all going swimmingly.
On Wednesday, South Mayor Mayor Philip Stoddard, who has been a champion for the pool, donned swim shorts and a button-down shirt and locked hands with 5-year-old Cornelyus Stokes before jumping in. The mayor was thrilled that the community finally had a “place to gather and beat the summer heat.”
Cornelyus was one of the children who took lessons at Ransom Everglades in preparation for the opening. His mother, Tantanisha White, stood at the edge of the pool and couldn’t get over how her son was swimming with no fear.
“I didn’t even know he could swim like that,” said White, who grew up in South Miami and always wished she’d been able to learn to swim as a kid. “He’s getting opportunities I never had. You never know, he may be the next Michael Phelps.”
Wilson Sayre is a reporter for WLRN-Miami Herald News. She can be reached at wsayre@MiamiHerald.com.