Swim teacher Jonathan Strauss has always loved swimming, but some of his students haven’t had a positive experience in the water.
Strauss, 32, is a director at Swim Gym, his family’s 31-year-old for-profit aquatic education school in Miami-Dade County. There, he coordinates events such as Swim Miami Beach, a one-mile open-swim competition and fundraiser that brought together about 300 athletes and swimmers last weekend in North Beach.
Participants charted choppy waves and strong currents to raise money for Swim Gym’s foundation, H2Os Helping Others To Swim, which teaches children ages 3 to 8 from low-income households how to swim for free. Swim Gym normally charges $20 for a 40-minute lesson.
“At first you have to pull them in,” Strauss said. “But the longer they are in the water you see their faces change from sheer terror to joy.”
In 2013, Florida had the highest drowning rate in the nation for the 1- to 4-year-old age group.
Swim Gym offers safe-swimming classes at three locations: the Miami Beach Jewish Community Center, the Dave & Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall, and the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in Aventura. Strauss said he must reach children from all communities to accomplish Swim Gym’s goal — to reduce accidental drownings throughout South Florida.
It takes $200 a year and 200 hours of water time to teach most children to become fully waterproof, so that if they fall into a body of water they can safely get themselves out, Strauss said.
Besides fundraising, the school’s greatest challenge is finding transportation for the kids to get to swim class, said Jonathan’s mother, Jennie, who founded the school with her husband, Robert Strauss, a former Olympic swimmer for the Mexican team.
“Once we have the funds we struggle to get the kids to come in. Some parents can’t afford to bring their kids and not all communities have public pools for us to go to them,” Jennie Strauss said.
Jonathan said he is on a mission to make people understand that swimming is an essential skill to learn in Florida because the state is surrounded by water.
In Broward County, daycare centers, charter schools and public schools partner with swim schools through the Swim Central program. Children are bused to swim schools and given free water-safety classes for 30 minutes over a two-week period. The program, which began in 1999, has taught more than 446,000 children from 180 elementary schools, according to the website.
Strauss wishes Miami-Dade County Public Schools had a similar program. “In order to make this happen, we need the communities to talk to their officials,” he said.
Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces has a summer Learn-to-Swim program for youngsters 2 and up, according to the website.
He encourages churches, sports teams, schools and other groups with children who cannot swim to contact Swim Gym to set up lessons.
Strauss said he hopes that more youngsters learn how to swim and develop a positive, safer relationship with water.
“I am absolutely stoked when the kids learn to swim,” Strauss said. “It’s an ultimate euphoria to see these kids transform.”