Only 13% of children ages 5 to 12 in America are getting the physical activity their bodies need. Throughout the United States, only 1.3% of swim team members are African-American. And African-American children ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at more than five times the rate of Caucasians in the same age range, and at 10 times the rate of children in the 11-12 age range.
Those statistics and the stories behind them have inspired the Ann Arbor YMCA to seek grants to fund innovative new programs to provide solutions to these persistent problems.
Although the Y's best-known program offerings are at its downtown Ann Arbor location, the organization is increasing its programming in other parts of Washtenaw County, particularly in underserved areas of Ypsilanti.
A newly-launched program called "Y on the Fly" is meant to increase activity levels in children ages 5 to 13 who live in neighborhoods that lack recreational opportunities. And a program set to launch in 2020 called "Young Women Making Waves" (YWMW) aims to increase young women of color's participation in swim teams and eventually offer some of them jobs as lifeguards.
"There was some research done by our grant funders, and they determined that in our particular service area, youth in Pinckney and Ypsilanti were the ones in greatest need for increased recreational activities," says Ann Arbor Y president Toni Kayumi.
She says that while Pinckney is rural and Ypsi is urban, children in both communities face transportation challenges, and that's why those two communities were chosen for the Y on the Fly program.
Both Y on the Fly and YWMW are about "meeting kids where they already are," Kayumi says.
Y on the Fly
On a warm Thursday morning in late July, more than 20 grade-school-aged children gathered in West Willow Park in Ypsilanti Township, running drills with a soccer ball and on the basketball court.
Y on the Fly coach Jermaine Wells gathered the children on the basketball court at the end for a brief pep talk, telling them he grew up in Detroit and knows what it's like to be in trouble. He said he wants them to avoid that same kind of trouble.
"If you don't listen, it won't get you anywhere good," Wells said.
Wells says he used to run a program similar to Y on the Fly in Bay City and would eventually like to bring professional athletes and other "positive role models" to talk to the children in the Y on the Fly program.
That concern for not just the children's physical health, but also their mental health and character, is built into all Y programs.
"It's about keeping kids active and engaged but also about disease prevention," says Y on the Fly director Tess Jackson. "We're teaching them to stay active and eat healthy, and we instill the value of good character to help strengthen them in both a mental and physical way."
The Y partners with churches, apartment complexes, and the Washtenaw County Playground Program to find locations where trained Y coaches can interact with youth and keep them moving during an hour-long program.
At locations where the programming is not run in conjunction with the county's playground and summer camp program, parents must check their children in the first time they attend. But after that, children are welcome to show up any time they see the vans with the brightly-colored Y on the Fly logo in the neighborhood.
The intention is to host the program year-round, so Y staff are currently looking for more community partners who can host the program during cold weather. Jackson says those partners can be churches, community centers, apartment complexes, or schools – "really just anywhere that has a large indoor space so the kids can kick some balls around."
A schedule for Y on the Fly is available here.
Young Women Making Waves
Grants from the Women's Sports Foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation will support a new program to teach young women of color swim skills, get them on competitive swim teams, and train lifeguards for local pools including the Y's pool.
The program is now in the "capacity-building" stage, and the first local young women of color will enter the program sometime in 2020.
The Y already runs a program called "Safety Around Water" in the pools at a number of McKinley properties in Ypsi as well as at Ypsi's Rutherford Pool and the downtown Y pool, attracting anywhere from 20-40 children in each location.
"It's a free program that allows kids with no swim skills whatsoever to gain the skills they need, as well as rescue skills," Kayumi says. Y staff will use that already-established program as a "feeder" for YWMW, she says.
Y aquatics coordinator Kimberley Baetz notes that YWMW should be a good fit for girls who "age out" of the Safety Around Water program at age 12 but want to continue developing their swimming skills. YWMW is targeted at young women of color in middle school and high school, since the minimum age to gain lifeguard certification is 15.
Baetz says she and other Y staffers are still working on developing the curriculum. But they know that they want to help participants build community and strengthen their self-esteem in addition to creating "confident swimmers."
While the feeder program for younger children emphasizes water safety, YWMW will have more of a "competitive aspect," Baetz says.
"Those foundational skills are important, but to be competitive, there needs to be progression," she says.
Lifeguards and swim instructors are "not always easy to find," she says, so that's also a long-term goal of the program. As the girls work through the program and progress in their swimming skills, Baetz says, "they will come to have an investment in the Y, and those are exactly the ones we want to have on staff."
"Our goal right now is to get started in the summer of 2020 and see how it goes," says Y aquatics director Becky Epstein. The program would launch in outdoor locations over the summer, but the expectation is that it would also continue during the winter months.
"It would be running year-round, so we're hoping to get into places like Eastern Michigan University or the Ypsilanti Community Schools and partner with them to use their pools," Epstein says.
Anyone with questions about YWMW may contact Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.