Jefferson Elementary School teacher Gloria Barrera proudly watched over her 3rd-graders as they happily splashed and swam at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center last week, delighted squeals piercing the steamy morning as instructors guided the students in formation on strengthening kick exercises.
She loves her students’ enthusiasm for the program, but more important is that teaching them water skills will help save lives and introduce the children to a love of all the things you can do around the water, Barrera explained.
She understands this deeply, because, like more than half of American adults, Barrera herself never learned to swim. She never really had the opportunity.
“The act of learning how to swim is so important — it’s a life skill. If you learn how to swim, there’s so many more things you can do and enjoy later in life. … I’ve told my kids, I’m learning too,” she said.
When she was young, Barrera visited Venice Beach a few times and would stand in knee-deep water to try to play in the waves. “I remember the waves coming and knocking me over — I almost drowned, like three different times. It was terrifying. That’s why I never learned. Even now, I can’t go in if the water is too deep.”
The Aquatics Center is working hard to make sure local children have the opportunity adults like Barrera never did. Teaching water safety skills and swimming free of charge to all Pasadena Unified School District 3rd-graders at its facility in Brookside Park, just south of the Rose Bowl Stadium, the nonprofit is determined to save lives and teach a lifelong love of the water.
“Drowning is still one of the highest causes of death among children in the United States. … It is an epidemic to not have the skill set to be safe in the water. We hope that this exposure creates a lifetime passion for exercise and for all things aquatic,” said center Executive Director Kurt Knop. “These are life-saving skills and truly a ‘birth till we part’ mindset as we’re teaching them how good it can feel to exercise in the water.”
Water safety is truly a matter of life and death for children and adults around the world. Drowning, including non-fatal drowning, impacts families everywhere around the globe, regardless of geography, race or economics. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1-4 in the U.S., with nearly 1,000 children dying from drowning in 2017. More than 8,000 others nearly died by drowning, the academy states on its website. Among minorities, that rate is even higher: African American children ages 5-19 drown in swimming pools at a rate 5.5 times higher than Caucasians of the same age.
Since opening in 1990, the nonprofit Aquatics Center has made it a mission to change those numbers.
The center began a pilot swimming program 28 years ago to just two nearby PUSD elementary schools, but as word spread the demand skyrocketed, with all the schools understanding the dire need for water safety. After a few years, the center perfected a three-week, 15-day intensive swim program for 3rd-graders, which has proved to be the magic age for this kind of learning, said Mary Pinola, the center’s director of development.
The children must be old enough to be responsible, change into swimming attire in a timely fashion and follow instructions, but if they are too old they might already have developed a fear of the water or other bad habits, she added. The Aquatics Center does a skills test right off to help group the students with experienced instructors in a 5-1 ratio. Within three weeks, most children can learn how to swim and improve by up to two levels.
“It took us awhile to find the best combination. No one else that we knew was doing this at such a mass scale for a metropolitan school district, so we were on our own, but we did eventually find the optimal methods,” said Pinola, adding that the center realized early on the kids needed to have swimsuits and towels provided, or not everyone would be able to participate.
Today, the center’s program has served about 29,000 children across all 18 PUSD elementary schools, and this year alone will teach another 1,450 kids. The program costs the center about $250,000 per year and includes busing transportation, a swimsuit, towel service and a book of instruction that the children can review in class and with their families.
Parent and PTA president Kirsten Harman stopped by to visit the program last week and watch her 9-year-old twins in the water.
“This is just a phenomenal program — my kids love it, it’s their absolute favorite thing about school right now. It’s all they talk about at home,” said Harman, noting that her girls had some water safety skills to begin with but had never learned any strokes or had endurance training. “The fact that this is free is an enormous service to all the PUSD families, making it equally accessible no matter your socioeconomic level. I just feel very lucky to be a part of it.”
Meanwhile, Harman’s twins, Poppy and Pilar, waived happily from the pool, armed with kickboards. They love it when their mom comes to watch them learning in the water. Nearby, Cristina Alvarado, the Aquatics Center’s director of swim lessons, walked the deck to observe and noted how much she enjoys watching the kids advance in such a short period of time. The program helps teach body positivity and confidence, too, she said.
“There are a lot of things about the program that result in secondhand benefits. When they first begin you can see them come out in their suits super shy, wanting to hide. They don’t really know how to act in a bathing suit, they’re embarrassed,” she noted. “But by day three it’s different — they come out in their suits with a different attitude, they’re proud and excited to get into class.”
The center’s water safety “Learn to Swim” program with PUSD is funded in various ways, including contributions from the Pasadena Child Health Foundation, the LA84 Foundation, the Veeh Family Foundation, and donations to the center’s annual campaign, multiple anonymous gifts, as well as support for busing transportation provided by the Pasadena Educational Foundation.
Rose Bowl Aquatics Center board chair Patrick Amsbry said he feels passionate about the nonprofit’s mission to provide swim and learning opportunities to youth and adults of all ages and levels. His own children swam in the center’s programs, with son Tom going on to become a competitor for Amherst College. The elder Amsbry also has done triathlon swim training at the center and, over the years, came to see just how many different programs the nonprofit offers, including a warm therapy pool for programs aimed at those with developmental disabilities.
“We view the ‘Learn to Swim’ as the single most important program that we can provide to the community. Anything we can do to help prevent and eradicate accidental drowning is paramount to our importance and in my view, it’s a preventable social issue and we are working tirelessly to make a difference by providing more access to swimming lessons in our community,” he said.
Typically, the Aquatics Center charges for entrance and lessons, but for those who qualify, the nonprofit offers deep discounts and scholarships. Since the center opened in 1990, its scholarship fund has provided more than $6.5 million in support to community members who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
As part of the “Learn to Swim” program, the center also has made gifts of free-visits cards to the students and their families and teachers, hoping to encourage regular swim practice among entire families. Third-grade teacher Barrera plans to use her card and keep working to improve her swim skills.
“I still have some fear. It’s one of those things that can be hard to overcome, but I’ve always wanted to learn,” she added, “And slowly, I’m learning, little by little. Now I get to learn with the kids!”
To learn more about the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center or to help become a regular donor to its programs, visit RoseBowlAquatics.org.