In addition to barriers like cost and access to swimming pools, Miller said segregation and other cultural norms have made Blacks feel unwelcome in those spaces. Changing beliefs is an important first step for SwemKids.
“We are intentional in inviting children and their families back into this space. We let them know that this space is for them,” Miller said, speaking broadly of bodies of water.
“I really do believe that is what separates what we do from other programs. We focus on that connection and relationship with the space. Then, we work on the skills.”
Nearly 600 adults and children participate weekly in SwemKids lessons and activities in four metro Atlanta pool locations. Miller said plans are being made to build a SwemKids aquatic center that will allow the program to further grow.
“There aren’t many Black-owned water spaces in our city, and this would allow us to operate in a space that serves communities that have been left out of this particular industry,” Miller said.
“When I think about where we started and where we are right now, and how many people we’ve been able to touch while still not having our own space, it’s just amazing,” she added.
SwemKids also prides itself on giving scholarships in communities with the highest drowning rates. Children get four hours of free lessons in the water, a swimsuit, goggles, a swim bag, hair care, and skincare products.
Miller said parents also are offered swim scholarships because statistics show if the parent or guardian doesn’t know how to swim or fears the water, that fear is passed to the child.
“We aim to change those attitudes, but also create it as a family activity, so the full family can enjoy and have the skills to be safe around water,” Miller said.
SwemKids operates year-round because statistics show that year-round swimming reduces drowning rates up to 90%, Miller said.
This summer, the nonprofit operated youth programs and a large senior aquatics program at the former South DeKalb YMCA. Adults 55 and older were offered swimming instruction, water fitness, and lap swims.
The nonprofit has partnerships with public charter and private schools in the city of Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties. Having swim lessons as a part of the school curriculum with transportation provided could help knock down other barriers and help reduce drowning rates, Miller said.
“We also wanted to change the thinking around swimming from being just a leisure activity and have parents and administrators start thinking of swimming as a lifesaving skill that all children must have,” she said.
SwemKids also provides free lifeguard training and certification, then gives these graduates a job. During the peak summer programming, the nonprofit had 36 employees, including four full-time staffers.
The skills – even the little ones – are all celebrated at SwemKids. Cheers go up when a child who had been afraid of water jumps in for the first time. Everyone claps for the first lap completed or when an adult who has carried the weight of water fear for a long time now swims with confidence.
“That is really the reason we get out of bed,” said Miller, “so we can celebrate those first splashes, big jumps, and first laps with those students who ordinarily would not have access to this space or feel that this particular space is for them.”
HOW TO HELP
Sign up to be a monthly donor, a financial partner, or provide a swimming scholarship
Challenge others to learn how to swim, or make sure your family knows how to swim
Follow the program on social media: https://www.instagram.com/swemkids/
Learn more: https://www.swemkids.com/
WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT
This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.
Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.
We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead. We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.
And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.