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What Fun, Lifesaving Activity Has Families Diving Right In?

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Christine PoorBear and Nasenet Mebrahtu  

It’s only a half mile from Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic (OBCC) in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood to Medgar Evers Pool. But for parents like Christine PoorBear, that short distance is filled with barriers that might have kept her daughter, Nasenet Mebrahtu, from learning to swim. 

Cost, for one thing. Group swim lessons at Medgar Evers Pool cost $6.50 to $8 per lesson, and each session runs eight to 10 lessons. 

Swimming pools can also be confusing and intimidating, especially for non-swimmers like PoorBear, and for English language learners. 

For parents and guardians, stepping into the splash zone can mean stepping out of their comfort zones. The pool – with its strange smells and sounds, unique culture and unfamiliar language – can feel alien, even for people who speak English. 

That’s why OBCC (a primary healthcare and dental clinic run by Seattle Children’s) and Medgar Evers Pool teamed up – through a project called Everyone Swims – to build a bridge between the clinic and the pool. 

PoorBear and Nasenet cross that bridge every Friday. And Nasanet – who used to be afraid to put her face in the water – loves it. 

Families don’t necessarily know what it’s like to go to the pool to take swim lessons, but they know and trust OBCC. The clinic works to make it comfortable and easy for families to come. 

In neighborhoods across Seattle and King County, Everyone Swims has helped create dozens of similar matches between health clinics and pools – and it’s helping to make kids like Nasenet safer and healthier. 

Putting the “everyone” in Everyone Swims

Markez Jackson

"I'm best at crawl stroke," says 7-year-old Markez Jackson, a Friday night regular.

Everyone Swims focuses on changing policies and systems at the local level in ways that help families from diverse neighborhoods access swimming and water recreation. The project was born in 2010, a collaboration between Seattle Children’s and Public Health – Seattle and King County. 

Seattle Children’s staff members Elizabeth “Tizzy” Bennett, director of Guest Services and Advocacy and a longtime water safety champion, is the project lead. Dr. Lenna Liu, an obesity expert and pediatrician at OBCC, provides support as the physician lead. 

Swimming packs a one-two punch, they say, increasing both fitness and safety. 

“In communities of color, one in two children will develop diabetes in their lifetime,” notes Liu. “This could be the first generation where children don’t outlive their parents. Increasing physical activity improves kids’ chances of breaking that cycle.”

Children of color are also less likely than their peers to learn to swim, putting them at a higher risk for drowning. 

“Drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional injury or death among children and teenagers in our state, and taking swimming lessons makes them safer,” says Bennett. “It’s also great exercise. And it’s fun!”

A Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) enabled Bennett and Liu to make sustainable changes by launching Everyone Swims.

Four-point focus 

They started by asking the experts – parents in underserved neighborhoods. Focus groups exposed four big barriers to learning to swim that became the touchstones and policy goals for Everyone Swims:

  • Screening: Many people simply don’t think about learning to swim unless they are asked, and who better to ask than a trusted healthcare provider? 
  • Referral: Families need help finding a place to learn to swim, and it needs to be easy to register. 
  • Scholarships: Even when financial aid for swim lessons exists, families need help understanding whether they qualify, and they want easier an application process. 
  • Special programs: Families value special swim programs like single-gender swims sessions or parent-child classes. 

Everyone Swims was developed with eight clinic partners (with a total of 27 sites) and nine water organization partners (with 28 pools, nine beaches and two rowing houses) in Seattle and south King County (including OBCC and Seattle Parks and Recreation, which runs Medgar Evers Pool). The group worked collectively to develop policy change tools and strategies. Clinic and swim partners can tailor these tools to meet the unique needs of the populations they serve. 

By the time the grant ended, Everyone Swims was going strong. 

With the support of the Washington State Department of Health and a grant from the CDC, Children’s continues to manage Everyone Swims, connecting partners and developing much-needed tools that help everyone in the community find swim safety resources in their communities (including this great interactive map of places to swim in King County). The model is generating interest far beyond Seattle and is now being disseminated nationally.

Back to the pool

Shaliyah Jones

No more fear: "My favorite sports are swimming and basketball," says 9-year-old Shaliyah Jones.

Each Everyone Swims partnership is a little bit different, but here’s what it looks like for families at OBCC:

  • Screening: OBCC healthcare providers routinely ask about swimming ability at well-child visits, just like they ask about sleep or eating habits.
  • Referral: When children can’t swim, providers refer them to Medgar Evers Pool for swim lessons, the same way they would refer a child to a healthcare specialist. Murtfeldt follows up with families, helps them fill out streamlined registration and scholarship forms, sends the forms to the pool, answers questions, provides swimsuits and more.
  • Scholarships: Seattle Parks and Recreation, which runs Medgar Evers Pool, covers 50% of the cost of swim lessons, and a special Children’s scholarship fund can cover up to 90% of the total for families that qualify.
  • Special programs: On Friday evenings at Medgar Evers Pool, time is set aside from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. for swim lessons just for OBCC families. Many stay for the public swim that starts right after.

Lashey Poree, mom of 9-year-old OBCC patient Shaliyah Jones, says the model works for her family. 

Swimming has boosted Shaliyah’s confidence, says Poree, who is office manager for the Orthotics Department at Children’s. “She used to go to pool parties and sit by the side. Now she’s right there in the middle. She’s safe and happy in the pool.”

Ask Shaliyah if she likes to swim and she shakes her head. “I don’t like it,” she says, a big grin spreading across her face. “I LOVE it!”