Jackie Robinson Park swimming pool in Harlem (146557)
Jackie Robinson Park swimming pool in Harlem Credit: Malcolm Pinckney/NYC Parks

The Health Department announced this week that its Making Waves program taught more than 2,500 children how to swim this summer. The program provides free water safety and swim instruction for 6- to 18-year-old children and youth from low-income neighborhoods around the city. Making Waves aims to reduce the disproportionate risk of drowning among Black and Latino youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black youth ages 5 to 19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their white peers, and at ages 11 to 12, Black children drown in pools at 10 times the rate of white children. Launched in 2015, the program has enabled the Cornerstone and Beacon camps, managed by the Department of Youth and Community Development for low-income children, to expand their offerings to include swimming. The program utilizes pools in public schools that are not being used in the summer months. Since the start of the program, participation has nearly quadrupled—from 524 children in 2015 to more than 2,500 this summer. This year, the program has expanded to include participation by 37 camps, up from the 12 camps in 2015, and to operate out of 10 pools in public schools, rather than the three pools available previously. Of the 10 pools citywide, three are in Brooklyn, including two new pools launched this year at Brooklyn Tech High School and the Erasmus Hall Campus, tripling the program’s capacity in Brooklyn to serve more than 600 Brooklyn children this year.

“Teaching children to swim gives them a skill that may one day save their life,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett. “This program uses pools in schools that may not be used in the summer months to enhance access to swimming lessons in communities where we know many children do not learn to swim. I thank our sister agencies for working with us to connect children to city pools.”

“Swimming is a fun and healthy activity that motivates young people to strive for self-improvement by increasing their physical activity,” said Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Bill Chong. “The Making Waves program is an important part of water safety that over the past three years has helped our youth gain confidence by trusting themselves in uncomfortable situations. I am happy that through this program, hundreds of youth in low-income communities will continue to learn this lifesaving skill.”

“Summertime is all about continuing to learn and having fun, and through the Making Waves programs, thousands of children in NYC are doing just that,” said Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza. “We’re thrilled to be able to partner with the Health Department on this important initiative, which teaches young people life skills that will make them safer in the water.”

“I appreciate the leadership of DOHMH, DOE and DCYD in expanding Making Waves to provide children from underserved neighborhoods with the skills that every New Yorker should possess around the water,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams. “I’m particularly heartened that the initiative’s capacity has grown to include new pools at Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene and the Erasmus Hall Campus in Flatbush. The drowning risks in communities of color are too alarming to ignore, and I have valued working with programs like this, as well as initiatives from NYC Parks and nonprofits like the Swim Strong Foundation, who prioritize greater access to learning the ABCs of swimming. Let’s make bigger waves next summer and enroll even more of our children in this and other swim classes. Swimming should be thought of as more than a healthy way to get fit; it’s a life-saving exercise that everyone should think of as a rite of passage.”

“For too long, Black and Latino youth in low-income communities have been at a disproportionate risk of drowning,” said State Senator José M. Serrano. “Swimming is a vital, life-saving skill that will serve our children for a lifetime and introduce them to the world of aquatic opportunities available statewide. New York has some of the best pools, beaches and lakes in the country, and the Making Waves program ensures that parents feel comfortable in the knowledge that their children can enjoy the water safely and confidently.”  

“I want to commend the New York City Health Department and the Department of Youth and Community Development for the success of the Making Waves program,” said Council Member Dr. Mathieu Eugene. “Their efforts to teach over 2,500 kids to swim this summer will have a long-term impact on our youth population. Swimming is such an important activity for our young people to engage in, for both physical fitness and water safety purposes. I am delighted that we are able to use community resources within the 40th District to help keep our underserved students active during the summer months. It is my hope that we can continue to expand this wonderful program and teach more students the importance of water safety.”

“I learned that if you can’t swim well, you can grab the wall or kick your legs,” said Jasir C. 

“It is important to know to swim so when you get in a pool, you don’t get scared or drown,” said Hazel W. 

“The experience is great because the kids are able to face their fears,” said Jada Colthurst, a swim instructor for Making Waves. “One child came in and was crying in the corner for so long, but once he got comfortable with me, he loved it and could swim across the pool.”

“Overall, the program is amazing, because these kids don’t have these experiences, and some of them have never been to a pool before,” said Ashley Sanabria, a swim instructor for Making Waves. “Doing this means they get to have fun, exercise and learn to swim and be safe in the water.” 

Drowning rates in New York City mirror national trends, showing that Black children have a significantly higher rate of fatal drowning between the ages of 5 and 18 when compared with white and Latino counterparts. Between 1980 and 2017 in New York City, 28 percent of youth 24 years old and younger who died from drowning were Black, 20 percent were Latino and 10 percent were white. The disparities in swimming among youth of color living in poor neighborhoods is driven by a lack of access to pool facilities. Health Department surveys of past Making Waves program participants show that a child’s fear of drowning and injury, and the lack of access to a swimming facility, were the main barriers to learning to swim. Also, a long national history of segregated “whites only” pools made swimming seem inaccessible to excluded communities.

Making Waves is a collaboration between the Health Department, the Department of Education and the Department of Youth and Community Development. The city also teaches swimming through the following programs: NYC Parks’ free Learn to Swim for kids and adults, Adaptive Swim for people with disabilities and NYC Parks and DOE’s Swim for Life for second-graders. Together with the expansion of Making Waves, these programs teach swimming to approximately 45,000 New Yorkers annually.

The Health Department encourages all parents of children and young adults who are eligible for Making Waves to enroll through DYCD. For more information about Making Waves, visit nyc.gov/health/MakingWaves.