Health & Fitness

Water, water everywhere: Swimming lessons are critical

Danny Richardson, 6, left, and Jade Gamarra 5, enjoy their lessons at the summer swim program at Gibson Park pool. The Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club has underwritten 24 free swimming lessons for 50 children.
Danny Richardson, 6, left, and Jade Gamarra 5, enjoy their lessons at the summer swim program at Gibson Park pool. The Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club has underwritten 24 free swimming lessons for 50 children.

Usely Michel, a 13-year-old who couldn’t swim, got saved last month at a Deerfield Beach pool by Angel Rivera, an 11-year-old who could. A 14-year-old in Cooper City got revived by CPR Sunday after a house pool nearly claimed his life.

That’s why, last Wednesday, the stands surrounding Overtown’s Gibson Park Pool held 50 kids ready for the first of free swim lessons until the end of July, courtesy of the Kiwanis Club of Biscayne Bay. Drowning season’s upon us again.

“We’re here because there’s so much water to have fun in all over South Florida,” William Reich, former Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club president, told the kids. “Unless you have the skills you need to get in the water and be safe, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of that. That’s why you’re here today. And you’re going to be here all this week, all this month and all summer.”

Miami Mayor Thomas Regalado reminded the kids, “The water can be fun, but it also can be dangerous,” and pointed to the occasional news reports of fire-rescue workers pulling a drowned youngster out of the water.

Indeed, the Florida Department of Health notes the state loses more children under 5 to drowning than any other state. “Annually, in Florida, enough children to fill three or four classrooms drown and do not live to see their fifth birthday,” the department says on its website.

That’s the spark for the plethora of water safety and swimming classes in South Florida municipalities, as well as Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The city of Miami’s Grapeland Park will put on its first water safety event from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday with representatives from Miami Fire Rescue, Miami Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Through SWIM Central, Broward’s coordinating agency for water-safety instruction and awareness since 1999, nearly 500,000 children have learned to swim. The program, which is funded by Broward’s Children Services Council, the Broward administration and the Broward County Schools, allows nearly 25,000 children — mainly 5- and 6-year-olds — to get 10-day swim sessions during the school year.

Jay Sanford, the senior program coordinator for SWIM Central, said the mission of the program is to give every child access to water safety.

“Drowning is a universal problem and it need a universal solution,” he said.

Last year, the Broward Sheriff’s Office used the majority of a $70,000 anonymous gift to help SWIM Central provide swimming lessons for 1,500 kids through summer camps. Sanford said the program will use some of that money and other funds to work with camps this year as well.

Broward parents of children 4 and under are also encouraged to go on the website and apply for a $40 coupon to use at specific pools. Parents are also encouraged to get lessons.

“We do find that it’s very important to focus on the parent and the child,” Sanford said.

“They love the water,” Miami’s Claudy Jean-Louis said of his two children, a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old, as they took lessons at Gibson Park. “If they drown, I can’t save them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationally, children aged 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. Drowning accounts for one third of the unintentional injury deaths suffered in that age group, and most of those drownings occur in home swimming pools.

The CDC also states the unintentional drowning rate for African-Americans is “significantly higher” than of whites across all ages with the biggest difference among children. African American children 5 to 19 die by drowning at a rate 5.5 times greater than Caucasian counterparts, 10 times greater in the 11- to 12-year-old range.

Usely, the 13-year-old girl saved last month at a Deerfield pool, is of Haitian descent. She said she hadn’t learned how to swim, and her mother, Mirielle Michel, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel she herself feared the water.

“There are very few inner city pools,” said Miami’s Shemeka Wilson, as her 5-year-old took lessons at Gibson Park. “We don’t have pools at our homes.”

Also, Wilson said, “Any kind of lessons aren’t free. If you can’t afford them, then how’re you going to get them?”

Enter the Kiwanis Club, which began pressing its members to fund swimming lessons in the Gibson Park pool as soon as it opened in 2012.

Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club director Lew Matusow said the board agreed in 2014 to fund the first month, then pay half the fees for the remaining two months. When attendance dropped off in the last two months, the club decided to fund the program for all three months. And it hopes to expand the program to at least one or two more City of Miami parks next year.

“There’s too much water in South Florida for kids to drown because they can’t swim,” Matusow said.

Swimming programs

Learn-to-Swim programs at C.B. Smith Park, Central Broward Regional Park & Stadium, T.Y. Park for $50 per session.

Coral Gables

American Red Cross teaches swimming to 5-year-olds in two-week sessions beginning June 13 at the Venetian Pool. Resident cost is $50.


Swim lessons are available at six pools throughout the city. Contact 305-883-5800.


Learn-to-Swim lessons available, eight lessons for $45 for residents at Miami’s 12 pools.

Miami Beach

Flamingo Park and Normandy Isle Park Pool run Aqua Babies classes for 3- to 5-year olds free for Miami Beach residents on weekend mornings at 9:45.

Miami-Dade College

The college hosts various parent & child aquatics classes for those 5 and under as well as fundamental aquatic skills classes for those ages 6 to 15. 305-237-2161

Miami-Dade County Pools

Learn-to-Swim programs at each of the 11 county public pools.

South Miami

Murray Park Aquatic Center has group lessons for residents at a rate of $30 for 10 group lessons. The next session starts June 6.