Cool in the pool: YMCA program hits home with grade-school students

Cool in the pool: YMCA program hits home with grade-school students

CHAMPAIGN — Laurel Elzy, a second-grader at Dr. Howard Elementary School, and Malia Walton, a third-grader at Garden Hills, are two campers in the Stephens Family YMCA's Summer Swim Camp. Besides swimming, both kids have another favorite camp activity.

For Walton, it's eating the snacks. Elzy enjoys the part where she gets to "dunk her head in the water."

Both Unit 4 students learned how to swim within the last week-and-a-half, and neither of their families paid a dime.

The Stephens Family YMCA's Summer Swim Camp offers free swim lessons for Unit 4 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Courtesy of community partner Jimmy Johns, everything given to students — the swimsuits, lunches, snacks, towels, shirts, toys and more — is granted free of charge.

Summer Swim Camp runs in two 10-day sessions starting June 3 and June 17. The 2019 program enrolled 160 second- through fifth-graders from Stratton, Dr. Howard, Garden Hills, Booker T. Washington and International Prep Academy elementary schools.

These schools were targeted for the program due to their high percentages of students with free or reduced-price lunches. Applications were accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

In light of the program's success, the YMCA more than doubled last year's total of 75 students by adding an extra session, YMCA Senior Program Director Jeff Dobrik said.

Kids receive individualized swim education at Summer Swim Camp. Beginners get comfortable jumping into the pool on their own and hanging on the pool's edge. Some dive to the bottom to retrieve swim toys.

Advanced learners tread water and practice efficient swim techniques with volunteer instructors. While half of the children stay inside the Y, the other half go outside the facility to play team water games.

"It's hectic, it's loud, it's crazy — but it's all positive," Dobrik said. "The kids come with smiles on their faces, and unfortunately, they're sad to go because it goes by super fast."

Swim Camp began four years ago with Unit 4 Director of Achievement and Student Services Orlando Thomas. Desiring a new community outreach program, Thomas saw water safety as a perfect skill to teach while exposing kids to the YMCA facilities.

"Summer can be downtime for kids without a structured recreational activity," Thomas said. "Swim Camp gives them something to look forward to, something exciting with lifelong skills."

Thomas cited childhood drowning risk as a top reason for creating Swim Camp. According to a December 2018 study by the New England Journal of Medicine, drowning is the sixth-highest cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents.

Supervisors are amazed at the progress kids make at Summer Swim Camp. UI graduate student Sarah Pittman has volunteered at the camp for three years, but one student's story still sticks with her.

"One girl started the camp at the side of the pool; she didn't want to get in and would ask us every day how much time is left," Pittman said. "Now she is just a swimming little fish."

Volunteers enjoy the camp, too. Karen Snook is a third-year supervisor who works for the Unit 4 Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and Ongoing Support, or ACTIONS program.

"My favorite part is listening to the kids every day on the bus ride home telling us about how much fun they had, and the parents at the end of the day thanking us for being here," Snook said.

As ACTIONS is a suspensions program, Snook said she is mindful of the positive effects that recreational activities can have on a student's experience. Snook said ACTIONS is grateful for the chance Jimmy Johns and the YMCA grant to underprivileged kids.

"Swimming is a life skill that often kids aren't afforded the luxury of doing," Snook said. "Some of these kids have the opportunity to do this that would not normally have the opportunity."

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