Hundreds of inner-city kids — mostly in Miami’s Overtown area — are receiving swimming lessons this summer thanks to the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club www.biscaynebaykiwanis.org.
Teaming with the City of Miami Parks and Recreation Department, the Kiwanis Club initiated a “mini-grant” program to underwrite swim lessons at the city’s state-of-the-art Gibson Park Pool, 401 NW 12 St. According to the Florida Department of Health, more children under 5 drown in Florida than in any other state. Looking at drowning rates by race, African Americans and Hispanics top the list.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that disparity is highest among children 5 to 14 years old — African American children in that age range are almost three times more likely to drown than white children in the same age range.
Those statistics were simply too much for The Kiwanis to ignore, particularly in an area known worldwide as a yeararound water playground.
“It is so crucial — with South Florida having all this water — for us to address this issue,” said Will Reich, 33, president of the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club. “When students and children don’t have any exposure to swimming at an early age, it puts them at a significant risk when they’re teenagers and adults.”
So the Kiwanis, which works closely with the Overtown community (the club recently awarded a full college scholarship to a senior at the area’s Booker T. Washington High School), felt the need to make an impact and potentially prevent the death of a child. To make the community aware of the program the club designed and printed more than 2,000 oversized postcards promoting the lessons and the city distributed the eye-catching cards throughout the neighborhood.
Fifty kids received free lessons for the month of May — eight 45-minute lessons in total. They can continue their lessons for the rest of the summer and pay $20 each — rather than the $45 a month that Gibson Park regularly charges. Overall, the club spent more than $7,000 on the program.
The program officially began with a ribbon cutting featuring local sports celebrity and Baseball Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and City of Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon.
Dawson, the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club’s Michael Shores “Citizen of the Year” in 2011, grew up in South Florida and never learned how to swim as a child. Because he learned later in life, Dawson addressed the kids — and their parents — about the importance of learning how to swim at an early age.
“When you’re in the water, you never know when your life is going to be in danger,” said Dawson, 59, stressing the importance of the lessons Kiwanis provides. “You may even have to save a life.”
Ruth Smerznak, a stay at home mother and resident of Overtown, brought her seven kids to Gibson Park for the free swim lessons.
“We’re really grateful for it,” said Smerznak, 45. “They had minimal swim lessons in the past but being a large family, it would be hard to get them all up to speed on how to swim without the Kiwanis Club’s generous offer.”
For more information, contact the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club at 305-814- 2225.