MARTINSVILLE, Va. -

According to the Centers for Disease Control:

Between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The disparity is widest among children 5-14 years old. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range. 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. Available rates are based on population, not on participation. If rates could be determined by actual participation in water-related activities, the disparity in minorities’ drowning rates compared to whites would be much greater. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html

In Martinsville, a learn-to-swim program aims to change this reality.  The “Lets Swim” organization was created four years ago after a now-deceased former city councilman and the mother of a teenage drive-by shooting victim met.  They wanted to do something to try and address the drowning rate among black children, honor the young man who was killed, and provide an alternative to life on the streets, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.  Delvin R. Hairston was the high school senior, gunned down in his driveway and Sylvia Dupee is the director of the memorial fund set up in his name.  She talks about the genesis of the swim program, explaining, “It was a vision of Mr. Bruce Dallas.  He was a city councilman here.  He died in 2007.  He discussed this program with Ms. Hairston and it was put into existence after his death in 2009.  We had no swimming areas in the Martinsville area in the lower income areas of Martinsville and he thought all kids should be able to swim.” CLICK HERE TO SEE UNDERWATER VIDEO OF THE SWIM LESSONS.

Since its inception, about 300 children have received free swim lessons.  Dupee, who never learned to swim herself, believes starting young is a key to success in that you haven’t developed a natural fear of water. “It builds their confidence up, especially if they learn and they can swim from here to there (one end of the pool to the other) and back.  They really are excited about that,” she said.  She jokes she wishes she would have learned to swim saying that it would have made her more athletic because it’s a good form of exercise.

Two years ago, the people behind the “Lets Swim” program formed the D3-Mako Swim Club.  After showing proficiency in the water, swimmers have a chance to advance into it. From the Mako’s they can then advance to the Martinsville YMCA competitive swim team.  Let's Swim classes and the D3-Makos both meet and practice at the Y's pool on Starling Avenue.  Watching from the bleachers at one end of the pool, Schenita Martin, whose son just turned 14 told us, “He got into it a couple of years ago.  Delvin (Hairston) is actually his uncle’s nephew, so he got him into it and he’s taken up with it pretty well.”  Like many parents watching their kids learn and practice new-found skills, she appreciates that it gives him a diversion away from the streets.  “It’s very positive,” she said.

In the water we encountered two young volunteer instructors.  Rsheena Hairston said, “It’s a very good advantage to have the experience of teaching these kids to swim.  I really enjoy doing it.  I think it helps them out a lot and their parents as well.”  26 year old Cedric Penn figures about half of his friends learned how to swim when they were kids.  He said, “Oh it’s great seeing kids learning how to swim. It pays off and they’re getting it pretty fast too.  All they need is a little experience.”

The “Lets Swim” program runs each April through August.  Participants are provided with swim suits, towels, googles, shirts, backpacks and a snack after each session.  For more information on the program or to sign up for next spring’s program contact the “Lets Swim” coordinator, Renay Hairston at bronwyn89@comcast.net.