At 1:45pm on Wednesday afternoon, a troupe dressed in blue polo shirts ambled out from Frederick R. Douglass Elementary, across Northwest 12th Street, to the pool facility at Gibson Park in Overtown. They had just come from an hour-long book reading for students at Douglass. They were headed to the pool to put the cherry on top of their day of service.
“I feel good when I give back to my community,” said Lewis Matuso, an active member of the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club.
The club is a local chapter of Kiwanis International — a worldwide service organization celebrating 100 years since its original founding. According to its own mission statement, the club is “dedicated to improving the world, one child and one community at a time.”
The Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club will be sponsoring a full summer of swimming lessons for 50 children at Gibson Park in Overtown. This is an expansion of the club’s 2014 program, which offered a free month of lessons and underwrote the remaining sessions at a reduced cost. About half of the children dropped out after their parents said they could not afford to pay for the remainder of the program — which would have cost between $15 and $25. The initiative aims to prevent childhood accidental drowning deaths and revitalize Gibson Park. The program kicked off on Wednesday with ranking members of Kiwanis in attendance.
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“I grew up in a very similar sort of neighborhood in New York,” said Carlos Gaviria, a financial advisor and current president-elect of the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club. “I had help along the way in different capacities, whether it was teachers and mentors who took a little extra time with me, but unfortunately a lot of kids in my neighborhood didn’t.”
Gibson Park features a playground fitted with artificial turf to keep children from getting hurt, a miniature rock climbing wall, pool, football and track-and-field facilities, a gym, and classrooms. A 2012 city of Miami news release indicated the park underwent $10.9 million in renovations.
The facility is currently undergoing further renovations as part of “Gibson Park Phase II,” which will reportedly include a 22,280-square-foot, two-story gymnasium. The total design-building cost was $5.3 million.
“We would drive by this park in the afternoons and there was nobody here,” said Matuso, 64. “We figured we could help put it to good use.”
According to the most recent report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, unintentional drowning is the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States. Among children ages 1 through 4, drowning is responsible for more deaths than any cause other than birth defects.
Minorities are especially at risk. Fatal drowning rates for African-American children from 5 to 14 years old are almost three times higher than white children in that same age range. That number jumps to 5.5 times more likely in swimming pools for African-American children ages 5 to 19.
In 1980, a Kiwanis club in Fort Lauderdale began the program “Every Child a Swimmer” in response to concerns regarding childhood drowning death rates. Since then, the program has been utilized by Kiwanis clubs nationally and internationally.
“We definitely think this is an issue that we should address, especially considering that we’re a state that is completely surrounded by water,” Gaviria said. “Unfortunately, a lot of African-American children aren’t taking advantage of going to the beach because they can’t swim. Not only do we want to save lives, but we want to make sure that they can take full advantage of their surroundings.”
Latravia Wright took her 4-year-old daughter, Kaliyah Wilson, to Gibson Park for the free swim lessons. Wright works part time and her husband works full time on an overnight shift, but they always find time for Kaliyah to get out of the house.
Kaliyah loves the water and participated last year in a similar sponsored swim program at Charles Hadley Park.
“It really helps because it gives the kids something to do and some parents can’t afford certain things,” said Wright, 24. “It’s hard sometimes, but it’s got to be done. I don’t want to see my daughter and when she gets older to feel like she can start something and then quit it.”