Upwards of 100 people drown each year in Washington State according to state health department data. In King Country, a record 29 people drowned in 2021, the most recent data available. Here, as in the rest of the U.S., a disproportionate number of people of color drown compared to Caucasians.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and a host of community partners hope to change those statistics with Swim Seattle, an initiative to promote basic swimming and water safety skills. The program aims to ensure all Seattle children, including those from low-income homes and from communities impacted by inequitable drowning rates, have access to comprehensive swim lessons.
“Kids will receive a free swim lesson series each quarter for a year,” said Rachel Schulkin, Seattle Parks director of public affairs. “One series has eight to 12 30-minute lessons depending on the particular class they sign up for. The intent of the free program is to provide access to beginning lessons that will carry participants through to a basic level of proficiency.”
Time for a ‘bold step’
In an email announcing the program Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent AP Diaz minced no words regarding the ‘why’ of the program: “Youth of color are far more likely to die from a swim-related death than their white peers and are far less likely to have the opportunity to have engaging, accessible, and effective swim instruction.
“These disparities have existed for far too long,” Diaz wrote. “It’s time to make a bold step forward in our collective efforts to ensure swim safety – a vital life skill – is accessible for all, especially in a city and state known for its abundant lakes and shorelines.”
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) back up Diaz’s message. According to CDC data, in America.:
- the highest drowning rates are among children ages 1–4.
- most preschool-age drownings occur in swimming pools.
- fatal drowning is the leading cause of death for children 1-4 and the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 5-14 in America.
- nearly 80% of drowning victims are male.
- drowning death rates for Black people are 1.5 times higher than the rates for White people.
- disparities are highest among Black children ages 5-9 (rates 2.6 times higher) and ages 10-14 (rates 3.6 times higher).
Disparity in swim skills
Moreover, Black children aged 10-14 drown at rates 7.6 times higher than White children in swimming pools. And, drowning rates among other BIPOC communities are also higher than among Whites. The advocacy group Stop Drowning Now points out that 64 % of Black, 45% of Hispanic/Latino children have few to no swimming skills compared to 40% of White children
Pilot in 2023
Seattle Parks and Recreation will pilot the Seattle Swim program this year, starting with a group of 250 low-income youth ages 6 to 16. Priority will be given to families eligible for parks department scholarships. Enrollment will happen online, in-person, and via phone starting May 16.
According Rachel Schulkin, Seattle Parks director of public affairs, the department has put aside $100,000 for the pilot or demonstration phase of the initiative. The money was repurposed from Seattle Parks Swim Equity fund which added additional scholarships for swim lessons.
During the pilot, the department will provide free swim instruction to kids in partnership with No More Under, the YMCA, Seattle Children’s Hospital, University of Washington, Washington State Parks, and other water safety advocates and regional recreation facilities.
A critical life skill
Project leaders hope to expand the model to reach all low-income children in Seattle in subsequent years before a possible regional expansion. They say they are planning a program that will saves lives and build confidence.
“Swimming is a life skill that we believe everyone should have access to,” said Schulkin. “And more so, drowning is preventable, and we’d love to live in a city where we can drastically reduce drowning risks for all children. We also know that there is more to learning to swim than simply taking lessons. That is why this program will apply a cohort approach that we believe will take kids all the way from beginners to proficient swimmers, and will address other swim access needs related with swimwear, hair and skin care, swim equipment, and addressing fears around water.”
How to enroll
Enrollment in the pilot program will begin May 16 in-person at Seattle Parks pools, via phone (call your local pool), or online the Seattle Parks website.