Metroparks aim to raise $2.4 million for swimming equity and classroom science programs

A new initiative called Metroparks and Me will fundraise for a program that offers free swimming lessons and another that provides supplemental science lessons in under-resourced classrooms.
This story is part of Equity in Our Parks, a series highlighting the people and organizations advancing equity through Southeast Michigan’s parks and related programming. It is supported by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, City of Detroit, and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. 

Growing up in Detroit, Theresa Thackston never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. But Thackston, now 53, recently became a confident swimmer thanks to lessons at the South Oakland Family YMCA from a free program called Everyone in the Pool. ​​

"I always wanted to learn how to swim, but I didn't know where to go to even get started," she says. "... I just really think this is a great, awesome program to have."

Everyone in the Pool is a collaboration between the Huron-Clinton Metroparks and numerous partners across Southeast Michigan, including parks systems and recreation providers. It aims to address alarming statistics showing much higher drowning rates for people of color compared to white people, which are often correlated with people of color having less access to swimming lessons. A new Metroparks initiative called Metroparks and Me aims to raise $2.4 million over three years for Everyone in the Pool and the Metroparks' Supplemental Science program, through which park staff provide educational programming for students both in under-resourced schools and in the Metroparks themselves.
A Supplemental Science lesson.
Thackston, who is Black, says she's excited by the prospect of Everyone in the Pool expanding and empowering more people as it did her.

"I've been telling other people that I know don't know how to swim, who are also African-American, about the program and how to take advantage of it," she says. "A lot of my friends have children, and you can't just have your kids out there and not know how to swim as well. I just figure this is something good for us."
An Everyone in the Pool swimming lesson.
Metroparks and Me and equity

Both Everyone in the Pool and the Supplemental Science program have already proven successful for the Metroparks. Everyone in the Pool has delivered free water safety and swim lessons – as well as free swim suits, goggles, and other gear – to 4,600 students at partner sites across Southeast Michigan since the program launched in 2021. Another 1,600 lessons will be offered this summer. Meanwhile, the Supplemental Science program provided 4,000 hours of science instruction across 59 visits to fourth-, fifth-, and eighth-grade classrooms during the 2022-2023 school year at John R. King Elementary in Detroit.

"Even though the Metroparks has invested money in each of these programs, ... in order for us to grow the programs and sustain them over time, we need fundraising to do that," says Metroparks Director Amy McMillan. "And so the Metroparks and Me program has been put together to help us fundraise around these two programs to achieve our larger goals and outcomes."
An Everyone in the Pool swimming lesson.
Those goals are firmly rooted in equity. Metroparks and Me aims to raise $600,000 for Everyone in the Pool over the next three years, allowing the Metroparks to provide free lessons to 12,000 more people and expand lifeguard certification training. Through the program, the parks system hopes to make a further dent in swimming-related inequities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian and Black people have the highest drowning death rates in the U.S., and Black and Hispanic people are far less likely to have learned to swim than white people. In Detroit, a survey conducted by the Metroparks found that 70% of children had little or no swim experience and 79% of children living in households making under $50,000 didn't know how to swim.

"There are not the resources to provide swim lessons that are convenient, that are where kids can easily get to the swim lessons, that are affordable," McMillan says. "And even if you can have swim lessons, but if you don't have a swim suit [or] swim goggles, ... those programs are still not accessible to you. And those issues, to us, are absolutely centered in inequity."
A Supplemental Science lesson.
Metroparks and Me aims to raise $1.8 million over three years for the Supplemental Science program, allowing the program to expand into an additional school each year. Supplemental Science aims to support teachers in under-resourced schools, and to increase exposure to science and nature for students who may have few or no opportunities to take field trips to the Metroparks or other outdoor destinations.

"It's ... generating this enthusiasm around science and kind of breaking down the barriers, barriers of whether science is interesting or worth somebody's time or frightening to kids," McMillan says. "... You don't have to go to a park. You can learn about weather and the impacts of weather in your own school yard."

McMillan says that both programs are closely related to the Metroparks' mission statement, which is "To bring the benefits of the parks and recreation to the people of southeast Michigan. All the people. All their lives."

"We're really very serious about that," she says. "So it requires us to expand beyond the borders of our parks, to work with partners in the community, to help make those things happen."

"We can fill as many classes as we can offer"

Those who've hosted and participated in Metroparks programming express excitement about the potential for Everyone in the Pool and Supplemental Science to expand. Brian Paul, a fourth-grade teacher in Dearborn Heights' Crestwood School District, took his students on a field trip to Kensington Metropark last year thanks to a grant from the Metroparks' Get Out and Learn program. He says he appreciated the "high-energy, high-involvement" nature of the experience, and he's enthused about more students having similar opportunities through Supplemental Science programming.

"I can't recommend it more highly for students," he says. "But for the teachers, being able to offer a field trip that is so affordable for the students [is] the great part about it."
A Supplemental Science lesson.
Amanda Barone, regional director of aquatics for the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, says both youth and adult swim lessons offered in Mount Clemens through Everyone in the Pool have been "an amazing hit with everybody."

"We can fill as many classes as we can offer," Barone says. "... We're kind of breaking these generational boundaries and things that have prevented people from learning [to swim] before."
An Everyone in the Pool swimming lesson.
Lauren Fuller, executive director of Oakland County Sheriff PAL, began hosting Everyone in the Pool lessons at Waterford Oaks Park in the summer of 2022. Since then, she says she's received almost daily inquiries about the program, and registration for new sessions usually fills up within 24 hours. Oakland County Sheriff PAL programming primarily serves Pontiac, which Fuller notes has no public or private pools within its city limits. Fuller says she appreciates the Metroparks' commitment to equity in managing the Everyone in the Pool program, which extends to factors like providing registration assistance for families with language- or work-related barriers.

"It's been really cool to see the Metroparks kind of putting [equity] first," Fuller says. "It's something that we think about a lot, but sometimes larger entities talk about equity in lots of different ways, but don't necessarily really strategically put it into practice."

Barone expresses similar sentiments. She says she's grateful for the opportunity for the YMCA and the Metroparks to partner in advancing equity-related goals, and hopes Metroparks and Me will take that work to the next level.

"I think it's just bringing so much attention to this cause that is overdue," she says.

Patrick Dunn is the lead writer for the Equity in our Parks series. He's also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and editor.

Photos courtesy of Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere