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On a recent afternoon at the Fry’s Spring Beach Club pool in Charlottesville, children splashed with friends and families and showed off new tricks. At one side, several clustered around an instructor who was teaching a child to float on his back.
The lessons are free, thanks to the Benjamin Hair Just Swim for Life Foundation, which provides monetary and volunteer support for the lessons.
“The first goal was to ‘waterproof’ kids, so if they fell in the pool, they would be able to swim to the side,” said Beth Bullard, who coordinates the partnership for FSBC. “There are a lot of other goals that we’re meeting. … A lot of kids say, ‘I was able to go to the city pool and I was able to pass the swim test, so now I’m allowed to go down the slide.’”
The Ben Hair swimmers start with one week of four lessons, plus one hour of practice time after each lesson. Many swimmers return for multiple weeks or years.
Amanda Zamorra Santarrosa, a rising second-grader at Baker-Butler Elementary in Albemarle County, is in her third year of swim classes. She remembered the first moment she swam independently.
“[An instructor] held a Hula Hoop and then we tried to [swim] through the Hula Hoop,” Amanda said. “I was very proud.”
Six-year-old Erin Casmiro showed off her kicking skills as she held onto the side of the pool.
“I like to stay in the water,” Erin said. “If someone gave me a mermaid tail, [I would need to swim]. That’s why I learned to swim.”
Bullard estimated that FSBC taught 125 low-income students this summer through the Ben Hair program.
More than half of the students live a six-minute drive away from Fry’s Spring in the Southwood Mobile Home Park in Albemarle, Bullard said. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville owns Southwood and is working with residents to develop a new neighborhood with options for homeownership.
“Southwood people were my first people, because I had a friend there,” Bullard said. “At some point after the first year or two, we got word out to teachers, and the teachers have been really good at referring people.”
Habitat has helped to publicize the program, too, by organizing sign-up events and translating forms, as the nonprofit does for their other community partners.
Rebekah Coble, Habitat’s youth engagement specialist for Southwood, said there is so much interest in the swim lessons that families ask her about the program well before the summer begins.
“I think the community votes with their feet,” Coble said. “Families really value their children [in Southwood].”
There is no cap on the number of swimmers who can enroll in the program at Fry’s Spring Beach Club. To eliminate other barriers for students, Bullard does not ask families to prove that they qualify for free lunch at school, Ben Hair’s metric for the free classes.
According to the foundation, 40 percent of white children, nearly 70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim and feel uncomfortable around water.
“Swimming’s pretty expensive because you have to have a facility, so I like the fact that [the foundation is] making swimming something that people that don’t have a lot of money can come to,” Bullard said. “We have a huge facility, and it’s underutilized sometimes by the members, so I think it’s great to have more people over here.”
One Southwood swimmer has graduated from being a student to being a paid instructor. Ashley Torres, a rising senior at Monticello High School, came to FSBC about five years ago to learn to swim. She was hired as an instructor last year.
“It’s so cool to work with [children] and see how they grow throughout the process,” Torres said. “Some of them start out knowing nothing. As the days go on and they come to practice, they get the hang of things and start learning freestyle, how to blow bubbles. …”
While children take classes, Bullard encourages their families to swim in the pools or sit by the water.
“If the little baby brothers or sisters wants to swim, that’s fine. Make yourself at home. Bring a snack,” Bullard said. “If the kids are not in the water, they’re over here on the playground or they’re playing soccer on the tennis court.”
Torres said she might not continue to swim when she graduates from Monticello High, but she has found another way to work with children. Torres plans to go to college to study sonography to develop ultrasound images for pregnant women.
“I really like babies — it’s my thing. Ah, I just love them so much,” she said.