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Learning To Swim, And Providing The Opportunity, Often A Challenge In New Orleans



Some kids spend more of their summers in water than on land. Yet in our city, surrounded by water, knowing how to swim, or simply finding a place to swim, can be challenging.

Some kids spend more of their summers in water than on land. Yet in our city, surrounded by water, knowing how to swim, or simply finding a place to swim, can be challenging.

Coach Jeffery Parker is one of the big fish who aims to change that. He trains water safety instructors and lifeguards all over the city. In other words, he teaches the people who teach kids how to swim. Coach Parker says any chance he gets to train kids, that’s what he does.

“The majority of the parents in the city cannot swim,” he says.

When Coach Parker was growing up in the 12th Ward, his family went to Lake Pontchartrain all the time to swim. But in the late 1960’s, after decades of dumping raw sewage and chemical contaminants in the lake, it was declared polluted and closed to swimming. This was a double whammy for swimming in New Orleans — because this was when public institutions all over the south were integrating. And, rather than integrate New Orleans’ public pools, the city simply closed them for about a decade.

“There was a whole generation of black people who never swam at all,” says Errol Duplesis, who grew up in the Seventh Ward and learned to swim at the Dryades Street YMCA and Lincoln Beach.

His love of swimming led him to direct Aquatics at Hampton University, a traditionally black college in Virginia, where he noticed how many people lose out when an entire generation has no place to swim.

“You don’t lose just one generation, you lose two generations,” he says. “You lose the generation immediately affected, and then  the generation after them.”

Anyone who teaches swimming will tell you it’s more than a great sport. Coach Parker says swimming can save lives.

“I mean the kids living in New Orleans they be surrounded by water. We living in a bowl here. So naturally kids should know how to swim,” he says. Hurricane Katrina made the necessity of this skill apparent, too. “We need to have more kids learning how to swim as opposed to just playing in the water,” he says.

Credit Joann Burke / Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
Ashley Kelly Swim Program lessons.

Over the past ten years, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, along with the Red Cross, has taught nearly two thousand people to swim — for free — through their Ashley Kelly Swim Program.

During the week of classes, Kevin Madison stood at the back of Tulane’s pool and watched his family. Kevin grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, where he taught himself to swim by sneaking into the river. But his two kids, and his wife, never learned how.

“I can’t go on a cruise 'cause she can’t swim,” he says.

After her lesson, Kevin’s daughter, 12 year-old Kaylin, jumps out of the water and over to her dad. She says she loves learning how to swim. Her list of accomplishments so far?

“How to bob under water and do a home glide. And how to like, kick off the wall and jump in,” she says.

She knew nothing about swimming before the lessons.

“I would have drowned in the bathtub,” she says.

When Kaylin is ready, she can swim in Lake Pontchartrain, which has been safe for swimming since 2006.  But the only open beaches are about 30 to 40 miles away on the North Shore — at Fontainbleau Parkand North Shore Beach, in Slidell. 

Kaylin may have better luck with New Orleans’ pools. When Vic Richard began running the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission in 2010, seven public pools were open, and none were year-round.  This summer, there are 13 public pools in Orleans Parish, and two of them are year-round, indoor pools. Vic Richard says New Orleans is committed to building and rebuilding public pools to so kids can learn, practice and play in the water.

But this year the city cut NORDC’s aquatics budget by $700,000. Richard had to raise private money and find ways to save. NORDC noticed that with school starting earlier and earlier, August doesn’t draw as many people to the pools. So this year the pools will only be open in June and July.

He puts the dilemma this way:

“Are we going to waste money — taxpayer dollars — or are we going to be good stewards?” Richard says. “So we made a very — I think — savvy and cost justified business decision to run an eight-week program, and not to have water, along with chlorine and manpower sitting for four weeks.”

NORDC is stretching its dollars as best it can to build and rehabilitate New Orleans’ swimming pools as well as offer lessons. Plans to build more pools haven’t been scrapped despite the city’s budget woes.

But if the budget was cut significantly this year, where will the future money to pay for these pools come from?

Vic Richard says if New Orleans wants its citizens to know how to swim the city may need to create a dedicated revenue stream to pay for them — or charge more to use the pools.

Find a list of NORD pools, as well as parks and other recreational opportunities in Orleans Parish, on this map created by NolaParks.

This news content made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.