Ypsi's Rutherford Pool partners with Washtenaw County to meet high demand for swim lessons

A recent collaboration has helped the pool provide more swim classes for adult beginning swimmers and inspired the county to make it easier for adults to learn a vital life skill.
Having many adults and teens interested in learning to swim is in some ways a good problem for Ypsilanti's historic Rutherford Pool to have, but the downside is a long waitlist. A recent collaboration with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission (WCPRC) has helped the pool provide more swim classes for adult beginning swimmers and inspired the county to make it easier for adults to learn a vital life skill.

Diane E. Carr, recreation operations superintendent for WCPRC, says representatives from the Friends of the Rutherford Pool board approached the county in late May or early June about the possibility of a collaboration.

"We learned one of their biggest challenges was that there were a lot more adults interested than they were prepared to provide services for," Carr says. "We determined we had the capacity to help them with some overflow this summer."
WCPRC Recreation Operations Superintendent Diane E. Carr.
Carr says the county would like to continue a collaboration in some form beyond this summer.

"We haven't fully formed what the future will look like, but, like Rutherford Pool, we have a responsibility to teach the population of our county to swim," Carr says.

Swimming as a life skill

This summer, the county was able to accommodate adult beginning swimmers at the Meri Lou Murray County Recreation Center, taking about 10 people off Rutherford's waitlist. Rutherford Pool Program Director Cathy Thorburn says there are still 10 to 15 people on Rutherford's waitlist.

Alyson J. Kindall, WCPRC parks and facility supervisor, says the group WCPRC took from Rutherford's overflow list ranged in age from 16 to late 50s.

The Friends of the Rutherford Pool have traditionally given out swim lesson scholarships, but a newer grant from the Huron-Clinton Metroparks allowed Rutherford to offer free lessons to adults in the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes, Thorburn says. That allowed the Friends to use their funds to offer more free pool passes.
Cathy Thorburn leading a water exercise class at Rutherford Pool.
"Every year, we offer adult swim lessons, but there's always a bigger demand for those lessons," Thorburn says. 

She notes there are other barriers. Adult classes are currently only offered from 5:15 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, which doesn't always fit in with a working adult's schedule. Teens also want to learn to swim, but they may feel embarrassed about having to be in a beginner class, Thorburn says.

"It's hard to teach teens to swim if they're in a class with 5- and 6-year-olds," Thorburn says.

She says many of the people signing up to swim as adult beginners are Black, and many of them might not have had access to a pool when they were younger. In other cases, nobody in the adult beginner's family swam, so they didn't learn from their parents.
Rutherford Pool Program Director Cathy Thorburn.
"But now these folks are older and they're trying to get into the pool to keep up with their children, or be in the pool with their grandkids, and not be afraid," Thorburn says. 

Several studies have shown that African-American children drown at higher rates than their white peers, so it's especially important to teach this life skill at a pool located in a predominantly Black community, she says. And, she adds, exercising in water "can be very forgiving on the body as you get older."

"If you want to go out on a boat on a lake, you've probably heard about drownings in Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes all the time," Thorburn says. "If you want to enjoy any of the water around us, swimming is important."

Removing barriers for new swimmers

Carr says WCPRC staff often focus on teaching children. They see that if the child doesn't know how to swim, their parents probably didn't swim either.

"That inability to swim tends to perpetuate itself," Carr says. "You grow up in a community where you don't have access to a swimming pool as a child, and if your parent is a non-swimmer, they won't go near a pool, because they know they can't help if their child gets into difficulty."

Carr says that pools often don't employ instructors or lifeguards who reflect the community around them.
Cathy Thorburn leading a water exercise class at Rutherford Pool.
"You don't often see instructors that are African-American," Carr says. What's more, she says, a young Black child may go to a community pool and "maybe nobody that looks like you is even swimming."

County staff were interested in the partnership, appreciating that Rutherford was encouraging adults to learn to swim as well as children.

"We were pleasantly surprised at the number of parents who wanted to learn to swim along with their kids," Carr says. "I admire adults who don't know how to swim who take lessons. That's tough and scary. But that's where you need to focus to break that cycle of non-swimming."

In Michigan, weather is also a barrier, so Rutherford Pool closes on Labor Day. The county recreation center's pool is indoors, making it easier for people who have just learned to swim to keep practicing without interruption, no matter the weather.
WCPRC Parks and Facility Supervisor Alyson J. Kindall.
Kindall says that parents of children currently taking lessons at the county's pool will be asked if they want to contribute a little extra when they sign their children up. That extra money will constitute the beginnings of a new scholarship for adult swimmers. 

"It's really important to have affordable swim lessons for children of all backgrounds," she says.

Carr says that swimming is a necessary life skill for Michiganders, who live in a state mostly surrounded by water.

"We want to make sure people in the community understand that's why programs like this are needed," Carr says. "We don't want the cost of the program to be a barrier for learning to swim."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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