Turning The Tide on Swimming Fatalities

May 23, 2018


Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental deaths among children aged 1 to 19 years old in the United States. These fatalities are even more prevalent among African American youth aged 5 to 19 years old. They are six times more likely to fatally drown than Whites and Hispanics of the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In New York City (NYC), many communities of color have limited access to swimming pools as a result of underinvestment in these communities, and a history of racial discrimination that limited access for African Americans and other minorities to swimming pools. Additionally, in many of these areas, the only publicly accessible pools are located in school buildings, which aren’t open during the summer months when schools aren’t in session.

To address these issues, in 2015, the Health Department (along with the NYC Department of Education, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Youth and Community Development) launched Making Waves, a program that provides free water safety and swim instruction to children 6 to 18 years old from low-income neighborhoods. The program aims to reduce the disproportionate risk of unintentional drowning among Black and Latino youth, as well as provide opportunities for physical activity and recreation.

Since the start of the program, participation has nearly tripled – from 524 children in 2015 to more than 1,400 in the summer of 2017. The Health Department plans to work with the Department of Education to expand the program from five to 25 pools, increasing enrollment to 9,000 young people annually. As a long-term goal, Making Waves hopes to offer an after-school program at select schools where students can train to become certified instructors and lifeguards.

“The risk of drowning is a serious health concern, particularly in low income Black communities,” said Sara Gardner, executive director of the Fund for Public Health in New York City. “Making Waves helps address a historical wrong with a recreational program that improves safety and is fun!”