Swimming Saves Lives Swimming Saves Lives

American Red Cross Reaches out to African-American and Latino Community Organizations to Promote Youth Swimming and Water Safety

Known as the nation’s largest supplier of blood and blood-products, the American Red Cross (Red Cross) has been a provider of lifesaving goods and services to those in need since its founding by Clara Barton in 1881. From home-fire recovery to natural disaster response, the Red Cross delivers its resources at no cost to the general public. In many instances though, the needs of various communities are not so easy to solve – like the disparity in drowning rates among African-American and Latino youth.

Between 1999 and 2010, the fatal drowning rates among African-American and Latino populations were significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. Factors such as access to swimming pools, the desire or lack of desire to learn how to swim and choosing water-related recreational activities may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates. Studies show 64% of African-American children, 45% of Latino children, and 40% of white children have low or no swimming ability (Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USA Swimming/University of Memphis).

In response to these staggering statistics, the Red Cross has made it part of their work to promote swim instruction and put aquatics resources into communities where access to these services has historically been lacking. In 2014, the Red Cross launched its Aquatics Centennial Campaign with the goal of providing low or no-cost swim lessons and to help develop lifeguards and swim instructors through its network of training providers in these communities. To date, more than 62,000 sets of swim lessons have been delivered! In 2016, the organization partnered with Diversity in Aquatics in hosting its first nationwide Aquatics Symposium in Miami. Select organizations were invited to join this important discussion and planning session, as each invitee primarily served communities where water-related injuries and drowning deaths occur at alarmingly high rates.

The national effort is being led jointly by the Red Cross Preparedness, Health & Safety Services and Office of Diversity & Inclusion Services teams – bringing together appropriate tools and resources with key diverse relationships outside the Red Cross to help drive the outreach into diverse communities. “It’s what we do,” says Jack McMaster, President of Red Cross Preparedness, Health & Safety Services. “Our mission is to alleviate human suffering, and often, this goes beyond the need for blood, food or shelter. It often means promoting awareness or providing access to skills-training that otherwise would have gone unfulfilled. With the help of our diverse partners, we’re seeing positive results.”

Eight national organizations joined the Red Cross call last year to promote water safety and swim lessons in the communities each organization serves. Among them were the League of United Latin American Citizens and Jack and Jill of America, Inc. To date, about 60 Jack and Jill chapters have signed-on to participate by either providing dry-land water safety instruction or taking swim lessons themselves. In some cases, Jack and Jill chapters are agreeing to underwrite the cost of swim lessons for hosts of community members. (Swim instruction, which is delivered through third-party providers, is typically fee based.)

“In bringing diverse partners and community organizations to the table this way,” says Red Cross Chief Diversity Officer Floyd Pitts, “we are able to push the important message of aquatics safety further into the diverse communities where these resources are needed most.” For Pitts, it is also personal. “As a youth, I never learned to swim because people of color were not often welcomed at public pools,” he recalls. “Pools where we were welcomed weren’t nearby and swim lessons were just too costly. Forging a way, today, to bridge these gaps for diverse communities is important, and it’s lifesaving.”

The Red Cross Aquatics Symposium will reconvene in April 2018 at the annual Diversity in Aquatics Convention, inviting last year’s participants to return, provide updates and share feedback regarding their efforts to promote water safety. For more information on this initiative, email the American Red Cross at diversity@redcross.org.

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