There were more than 10,000 reasons to celebrate at Columbia’s Charles R. Drew Wellness Center on Thursday morning.
As a group of eager Richland 1 second-graders kicked, splashed and glided their way through the center’s indoor pool, they were forging the path for a new generation of water-safe youngsters.
School officials, city leaders and others from across the area gathered at the Drew Wellness to celebrate the 10,000-student milestone of the district’s Elementary Water Safety and Swim Lessons Program. For the past eight years, the program has provided basic water safety and swim lessons to elementary school students.
The 10,000th milestone is especially significant to the district’s vastly minority population, as minority youth suffer drowning accidents at a much greater rate than their white counterparts.
“The sooner you catch and expose them to this, the better. We wanted our kids to feel safe in and around water,” said Carlos Smith, Richland 1 athletic director and an assistant to the superintendent.
Smith was instrumental in putting together the program and today continues as one of its supervisors. He said the water safety effort was sparked by the alarming number of childhood drownings that were being reported locally. “It appeared almost every summer, we would pick up the paper and read about a tragic drowning of a young person between 5 and 18 in Richland County,” he said.
Those statistics were met with an opportunity, he said, when the district learned the city was planning the state of the art Drew Wellness Center.
“We wanted to take advance of the opportunity and use the facility for students,” Smith said.
Through the program, second-graders receive seven or eight days of water safety and swim instruction for 30 minutes per day from instructors from The Swim Lessons Company, a local swim club. The lessons focus on such areas as basic water navigation, kicking and floating while also stressing the importance of staying calm.
“The essence of it is water safety,” Smith said. “We’re not trying to create expert swimmers.”
What they are building are more confident ones.
“I like it that we get to go in the water,” Mill Creek Elementary second grader Emmanuel Grant said as he fully embraced Thursday’s lesson.
Use of the Drew Wellness Center has been provided through the district’s partnership with the city of Columbia, and about 1,600 students have gone through the program each year.
Columbia High School sophomore Narasia Dixon is among the program’s success stories.
Dixon, who took part in the lessons as a second-grader, had no previous swimming experience before taking the class but said the training had fueled a lifelong love of the water.
“The class was very instrumental in that,” she said. “Swimming was something that I would need in life. If someone was drowning, I would be able to help to hem. And I can pass it along and teach others to swim.”
Mill Creek Elementary teacher Mischa Sumter said the early experiences in the pool will be invaluable for her students in the years to come.
“If they fall into the water, they can get themselves to the edge because of the skills they have learned,” she said. “I love this program.”
Smith said while the milestone 10,000th student is a gratifying figure, the program ultimately is not about bench marks.
“Reaching a number is not that important,” he said. “It’s giving our children an opportunity. Hopefully they will see this is a lifetime activity that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.”