Water defines the Northern Neck. It delineates its boundaries, supplies its geography, and provides its many pleasures. But those pleasures are denied to many children growing up on the Northern Neck because they don’t know how to swim and, often, are simply afraid of the water.

Now three local community organizations known for their commitment to serving the Northern Neck have forged an innovative partnership to offer free swim lessons to area children aged 6 to 11. The new Community Swim Program is a joint effort of the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Neck, the Northern Neck Family YMCA, and the Northumberland Family YMCA.

Launched in June, the swim program offers four two-week sessions, with half-hour lessons in the early afternoon at the Kilmarnock Y and in the morning and evening at the Heathsville facility, to help accommodate working parents. The YMCA provides the facilities and swim instructors, and the Boys & Girls Club secured the funding from three anonymous donors, who provided multi-year support for the program. “The Y has a strong second-grade swim program for children in the schools,” says Jonathan Putt, Operations Director for the Boys & Girls Club. “We wanted to work with them to continue that success going forward.”

“This swim program is so important,” says Allison Cockrell, Center Executive Director of the Northumberland Family YMCA. “Drowning is the number one, most preventable death among young children. It is 100 percent preventable.” Now, the sponsors note, every child in the area who wants to can learn to swim.

The swim program marks the first time that the Northern Neck YMCAs and the Boys & Girls Club have collaborated on a major, multi-year project, but leaders of the three organizations see it as a natural fit.

“We were excited at the opportunity to expand our reach and the opportunity to cooperate with another nonprofit that does really good work with kids,” says Liz Allen, Executive Director of the Northern Neck Family YMCA. “We are both serving youth in the community. This is an opportunity to bring all those kids together. We are better together when serving our community. It makes us stronger and makes the community stronger.”

So far, 89 children have signed up for the swim lessons. They start with the basics: jumping in, floating, putting faces in the water, practicing safety skills, and learning basic strokes. “A lot of the kids are scared even to get in the water,” says Will Bridges, Aquatics Director for the two YMCAs, and for the YMCA’s Camp Kekoka. “As much water as there is around here, every kid should get the opportunity to enjoy it safely.” By the end of the two weeks, he says, the children should have a good idea of basic water safety and boating safety. At a minimum they should be able to jump into the pool and get themselves out without mishap, and they should know basic strokes such as the freestyle and backstroke.

Children who successfully complete their lessons will have the opportunity to celebrate their achievements by spending a day at Camp Kekoka. Although the day’s events have not yet been finalized, they will likely include team-building exercises, use of the pool, and waterfront activities.

Teaching children to swim is a pragmatic goal, but there are loftier aims in sight. Kids from across the Northern Neck who might not hang out together otherwise are having the opportunity to get to know each other. “It is important for all of our kids to make sure they meet and have the opportunity to engage with other kids from all communities,” says Mr. Putt of the Boys & Girls Club.

And while education and awareness are of prime importance, Ms. Cockrell notes that the program is also “providing a cool experience. Seeing how kids can overcome that fear of the water and turn it into an enjoyable experience, that’s what gets me excited,” she says. “Kids don’t just learn the basics but also develop a passion and go on to join the swim team and to become lifeguards. We’ve seen that happen.”

Learning to swim is “not just something to check off a list,” she adds. “It’s a life skill.”

This year’s swim lessons are offered through August 12. New two-week sessions begin July 19 and August 2. For more information about the program or to sign your child up for lessons, please contact; YMCA: Will Bridges (804) 435—0223 ext. 3405 or Will.Bridges@ymcavp.org. Boys & Girls Club: Jonathan Putt (804) 435-9696 or jputt@bgcnn.org

Boys & Girls Club and Northern Neck YMCAs partner to offer community swim program