Thanks to a partnership between the YMCA of Metro Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Y was able to give swim lessons to more than 500 students across 10 community school sites during the summer of 2013. A majority of these students were first-time or novice swimmers. The lessons are part of the YMCA's Community Schools Initiative,
a school improvement strategy run by Y staff at 15 CPS schools.
“Our mission is to expand the horizons of the kids we work with and offer them opportunities they may not get during the course of the normal school day,” - Eric Werge, executive director of the Community Schools Initiative.
When YMCA of Metro Chicago President and CEO Richard Malone visited two of the first YMCA Community Schools, he asked the kids what kind of special experience they wanted from the Y. He was excited to hear their answer—swimming.
Because swimming is not only valuable for safety and fitness, but also a great way to learn perseverance and goal setting, YMCA leadership and CPS worked together to find a way to start bringing Community Schools students to Y membership centers for swim lessons.
Christopher Elementary on the South Side is the only Community School with its own pool. Last year, instead of bringing students to the Y, the Y decided to bring its swim instructors to Christopher to serve students from Christopher and Nightingale schools. Eric found willing volunteers at his own High Ridge Y with the help of Aquatics Director Christine Aguirre.
“I’m so proud of my staff,” says Christine, whose young instructors jumped at the chance to teach at Christopher Elementary, even with the hour-long commute. “That speaks to the kind of people that we hire and train. They realized that they were lucky enough to have exposure to aquatics when they were kids and wanted to pass that on.”
With first-time swimmers, it’s all about patience and games. For kids afraid to get their face wet, instructors may drop plastic fish to the bottom of the pool and pretend it is a big aquarium. As confidence grows, kids practice “sleeping” on their backs or “scuba diving” for rings on the bottom. All the while, new swimmers acquire important safety tips and the fundamentals of real swim strokes.
"I learned lots of things during the summer,” says fourth-grader Adamari, “But going to the bottom of the deep end was the most fun."
The summer swim program was such a success that the Y continued to offer after-school swim lessons at Christopher Elementary during the 2013-14 school year. Amanda Alvarez, aquatics lead at the West Communities Y, proudly reports that all 20 kids who participated, some of whom have special needs, can now swim the length of the pool using multiple strokes. They’ve also developed a sense of mutual respect for one another.
“It’s intimidating to dive in a pool for the first time, but they all encourage each other,” Amanda says. It’s one thing for your teacher to say, ‘You can do it!’ But when all of your classmates and peers are cheering you on, it’s even better.”