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SWIM ON Foundation helps area families learn to swim, prevent drownings

ST. LOUIS — Knowing how to swim and be safe around water is vital, but for at least 39 people in Missouri so far this year, that message came too late. This summer, the SWIM ON Foundation is hoping to help area residents, especially Black families, gain skills to enjoy the water safely.

The organization has launched a learn-to-swim campaign tackling racial disparities in swimming and water safety. SWIM ON is encouraging African-American families across the St. Louis region, particularly families in North St.
Louis and North St. Louis County, to enroll their children in swimming lessons.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children are drowning at 5.5 times the rate of other children.

In a news release, SWIM ON board member and University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate Ayanna Rakhu shared her research on the racial disparity. She reported that in 2017, the USA Swimming Foundation found that 64.2% of African-American adults said they had little to no swimming skill, and 78% said their children didn’t either. So if a parent doesn’t know how to swim, there is only a 13% chance that their child will learn to swim.

“African American females are the most prevalent group to have a fear of drowning, and are less likely to engage in swimming than their male counterparts or females in other ethnic groups,” Rakhu reported. “This fear is often passed down from one generation to the next.”

“Cost and accessibility are also significant factors affecting swim lessons in the African American community,”
SWIM ON co-founder Lisa McMullin noted. McMullin and her husband, Kim McMullin, a former Navy diver, established SWIM ON to honor their son Nicholas, who drowned as a toddler in 1982. The foundation’s name is an acronym for Safer Waters in Memory of Nicholas.

“Swimming is a healthy, lifelong activity but it is also, like reading, a critical life skill and one that can potentially
save lives,” McMullin said. “Every child needs to know how to swim. Every child has the right to learn to

The Swim On website lists lesson providers and ways to apply for scholarships and free lessons. The site also offers tips on swim gear including caps designed for Black hair.

Recent surge in outdoor drownings

Pools, lakes and rivers – even bathtubs – all pose dangers. But the arrival of hot weather and the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic means bigger crowds at Missouri waterways, and more deadly accidents.

At least 10 people have drowned so far this month in Missouri, and six others died in boating accidents. None of the 16 victims wore a life jacket.

Across Missouri, at least 39 people have either drowned or died in boating accidents so far in 2021, including at least seven children.

Public safety officials gathered Monday in Eureka for a news conference urging caution on the water, after three drownings in the St. Louis area last week alone: one in the Meramec River, one in the Big River and one at Creve Coeur Lake.

“Rivers are relentless. They do not discriminate, they don’t care who you are,” said Cpl. Juston Wheetley of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

St. Louis County’s parks, once quiet, are now frequent destinations for people looking to cool off, Park Ranger Sgt. Cheryl Fechter said. She noted that because some pools are closed this year due in part to a shortage of workers, many people are instead swimming in rivers.

For those who choose to swim in rivers despite the risk, interim Fenton fire Chief Ramona Kaminski recommends life jackets, even for adults who consider themselves strong swimmers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff is home to The NorthSider and The SouthSider weekly community newspapers. The SouthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Tuesday. The NorthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Thursday. They are distributed at over 600 locations across St. Louis.

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