Teens in youth facility get lessons in swimming, water safety

“Come on, you got it! Kick! Kick your feet, man!”

Jonathan, an 18-year-old resident at Sacramento Probation’s Youth Detention Facility, cheered on his teammate Omar, 16, as he raced across the facility’s pool this week, fumbling and twisting his arms through the water.

The facility, funded by a grant from California Endowment, partnered with the YMCA this summer to give swimming lessons to teen residents. The hope is to boost swimming and water safety skills while reducing the disparate number of drowning deaths among minorities, who drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their Caucasian peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thursday, the youth detention facility held a formal celebration of the program, which provided 222 swim lessons since June, said Brian Lee, the facility’s division chief. Three groups of three to four residents attended the 45-minute lessons twice weekly.

“Some come in (in May), and they can barely float,”said YMCA lifeguard Mowiah Barker. “And now it’s August, and you have those same kids, and they can do laps back and forth across the pool.”

The swimming lessons at the detention facility on Kiefer Boulevard are one way this year’s strategic plan for Sacramento’s “African American Children Matter: What We Must Do Now” is being addressed by local agencies.

In June, the county granted more than $6 million for programs focusing on the disparate death rates of African American children, which are twice as high as other children in Sacramento County, according to a 2009 study released by the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team.

“I knew how to swim before I got here, but I bettered my skills,” said Jonathan. “(Now) I know how to breathe while I’m swimming.”

Some of the more seasoned swimmers who came in resistant to water safety rules will now recite them to the lifeguards and make sure new residents know how to behave at the pool, Barker said.

James, 17, said he and his fellow residents have learned nearly every kind of stroke – freestyle, butterfly, breast and back strokes – and how to tread water and rescue someone from drowning.

Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil Serna, who spoke to those gathered on Thursday, said the celebration was timely, set against a backdrop of recent drowning deaths in the county, including five this summer in a three-week span at Tiscornia Park. Tiscornia is in Serna’s district.

“Remember, we live here in the River City, so hopefully when people leave this place, they have that added sense of accomplishment and ability to be safe in the water and enjoy the pools and waterways around our community,” he said.

The hope is that the participants not only learn how to swim, but also become lifeguards. The program plans to expand its offerings next year to include lifeguard-certification classes, said Jay Lowden, head of the YMCA of Superior California.

The majority of Sacramento’s active lifeguards are white, according to City of Sacramento personnel technician Michael Longstreet. Thirty of the city’s 46 lifeguards identify as white, while only one identifies as black, five as Hispanic, six as Asian, one as Filipino, one as American Indian and two who decline to identify.

While Omar didn’t out-swim his competition, the young man, who said he is “not much of a swimmer,” finished his lap and then leaned against the concrete edge of the pool to relax.

“The best thing about it, is that it makes us feel free,” Omar said of the swimming program. “In (the pool), we feel just like everybody else.”

Ashiah Scharaga: 916-321-1673, @AshiahD

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