Drowning prevention: Teaching black children to swim

Published: Jul. 12, 2011 at 10:00 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2011 at 9:17 PM EDT
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PORT ST. LUCIE, FL (WFLX) - Here in South Florida, many of us spend a lot of time hanging out poolside and at the beach.

But having a seemingly endless supply of swimming pools and the Atlantic Ocean at your doorstep is often a great source of angst for one segment of our population.

Toni and Nile Gentry love watching their son and daughter splash in their Port St. Lucie pool on a hot summer day. "We're in South Florida, and there's water everywhere."

But for the Gentrys' sister, Yolanda, being in this water world comes with reservations. "I know African American kids around pools don't mix. The kids usually don't know how to swim."

Studies support what Yolanda is saying -- that nearly 70% of black children do not know how to swim. That's the highest for any ethnic group.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the fatal drowning rate of African American children is three times that of white children.

The reason, according to the studies, is that black children often don't learn to swim because their parents can't and then don't encourage them.

A lack of nearby pools is also a factor, and so is hair care. "My hair fell out because of the chemicals and the chlorine in the pool drying it out. I learned to swim, but it was a heavy price to pay."

Mavalyn Caballero understands, but losing a few locks is worth it, if it means keeping her twin girls, Reece and Raina, safe. The 2-year-old girls are currently taking swim lessons, and mom will begin her lessons in August. "Now that I have children, I never want to get caught in a situation where I can't rescue them. Or I have to think twice about jumping in to rescue them. They say, you don't, but I just definitely want to know."

"Now, this story is one that really hits home for me. Like a lot of African Americans, I never learned to swim as a kid, and, consequentially, I can't swim as an adult," said Reporter Keli Fulton. "So I'm doing something about it. This way, I'll be more likely to encourage my future children to learn to swim."

Christina Theiss, who owns the traveling swim school "Swim with Gills" has been working to help teach Keli, and all of the kids you've met in this story.

Her goal is to shrink the pool of people who drown every year. "Every time, I teach a child to swim, it's a magical moment. I feel like I've saved a life," said Christina.

"Now, I'm not quite a fish just yet, but I'm proud to say, my days of only staying where my feet could touch the bottom of the pool are over," said Keli. "I also want to point out that this is a problem that affects other minority groups, as well. Nearly 60% of Hispanic children have low or no swimming skills."

Learn more about Swim with Gills.