SwemKids eliminates barriers that keep Black children from learning to swim

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Trish Miller nearly drowned at 19, and she’s been on a mission ever since to make sure no other young person has a similar experience.

She even quit her job last year, hoping to reverse some grim statistics among African Americans, where drowning rates among Black children are significantly higher than that of whites.

Almost 70% of African American children can’t swim, reports USA Swimming, which Miller says points to barriers of cost, accessibility and cultural attitudes. Swimming lessons are not prioritized over other sports, she said.

Miller, 43, left a career in public health with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation to focus fulltime on SwemKids, a nonprofit she launched in 2017. The curriculum-based program works with schools to offer free swimming and water safety classes as part of the school day.

SwemKids started last school year at Dunbar Elementary School, an Atlanta city school in a low-income community. To remove barriers of cost and accessibility, SwemKids provides transportation to the pool, free eight-day lessons, and all the gear needed, including swimsuit, cap, towel and googles.

Because knowing how to swim is a lifesaving skill, “we want to eliminate every barrier that keeps children from learning how to swim,” Miller said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Dunbar’s family engagement specialist Michelle Byrdsong-Walker said the opportunity SwemKids provides her school is “immeasurable.”

“It would be very difficult for these neighborhood children to get swim instruction,” she said. “Most of the parents don’t swim themselves. These children would be the first generation of swimmers in their homes.”

Using nearby pools at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School and a public aquatic center, two groups of children finished lessons just before the coronavirus pandemic closed everything down.

Byrdsong-Walker called the program’s launch a “total success,” and Miller said seeing those first groups of children complete their lessons is one of her proudest moments.

“We were able to prove that this would work and were able to turn those brand-new, once fearful-of the-water kids into lovers of the water,” Miller said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Children in a third group had just gotten their swim bags and gear when public pools closed, and the program had to stop due to the pandemic.

SwemKids has many partners, and one of them stepped up to give children another place to swim.

William Fogler and his company, Atlanta-based event design firm WM Events, are supporters of SwemKids. When Fogler learned the program stalled because of COVID, he immediately offered his backyard pool and even donated scholarships for children to keep swimming over the summer.

“This coincided with a lot of civil rights movements that were going on, and it felt like something good that I could do for the community,” said Fogler, referring to the demonstrations against police brutality. “It’s really a rewarding situation for me at a time that’s so dark.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The SwemKids program at Dunbar is continuing this school year, with parents transporting their children to Folger’s pool in Fayetteville.

One of the beginner swimmers, kindergartener Reysen Spence, loves to get in the water, even after getting an unpleasant mouthful , said his mother, Reynelle Spence.

Spence never learned to swim, and because of a near-drowning experience, she is afraid of water. But she doesn’t want to impose that fear on her son.

“I applaud his tenacity. I want him to learn how to swim,” Spence said.

At SwemKids, cheers go up when a child who has 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, swims with confidence.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Miller said: “I have those moments, ‘Oh no, I’m doing this full time, and now all the pools are closed.’ But then someone like William (Fogler) comes along; it makes me not regret one single minute or hour that I left my job to do this full time. It is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my professional career.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner


William Fogler, owner of WM Events, on donating his swimming pool:

“I get to see something good happening as it relates to the Black community. It gives me a little bit of empowerment that I’m doing my part, doing something that is a lot more vital and has more sustainability in helping generations to come.”

Michelle Byrdsong-Walker, Dunbar Elementary School family engagement specialist, on what SwemKids means to the school community:

During an initial parents' meeting about the program, Byrdsong-Walker asked by show of hands who knew how to swim. There were no hands raised among the 50 or so adults in the room, she said.

“We want to make this a staple program at Dunbar. It also helps the parents by showing them it’s not too late to learn to swim."