Hundreds of students at Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools will have the opportunity to learn life-saving swim skills and water safety thanks to a new, free program funded by a grant from mass media company Warner Media.

Warner Media is partnering with the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, KCKPS and the Unified Government to prevent drowning tragedies like the one that happened last summer.

Thirteen-year-old Emmanuel Solomon drowned after jumping the fence and into the deep end of the Parkwood Pool.   He couldn’t make his way out and spent several minutes underwater before being rescued.  He died after being taken to Children’s Mercy Hospital.  

“This is the beginning of a sustained partnership to make sure that not one more child drowns in the KCK community, and we will do everything we can to unite because drowning is preventable,” said Dennis Williams, senior vice president of corporate affairs and corporate social responsibility for Warner Media.

Following Solomon’s death, people protested to reopen the Parkwood Pool, which was closed for the 2021 season due to pandemic concerns and difficulty hiring lifeguards. Many protesters believed Solomon’s death likely wouldn’t have happened if the pool had been open,

The new Learn to Swim program is dedicated to the memory of Solomon.

“It was clear right from the onset that emotions of the tragedy that happened last summer were still raw and they should be raw, because tragedies like these, they’re avoidable,” said Gary Linn, senior vice president of operations at the YMCA of Greater Kansas City. “They’re avoidable when you have organizations that are dedicated to implementing programs to teach every kid and give access to swim lessons to every child.”

The first class for the Learn to Swim program began Feb. 2 and will continue for six weeks at the Providence YMCA, 8601 Parallel Pkwy, KCK. During this first phase, the program is serving 200 kindergarteners through 6th grade students in the KCKPS after-school program at Hazel Grove and Whittier Elementary.  

learn to swim students

The YMCA hopes to expand the program to include students throughout the district, including middle and high schoolers.

ribbon cutting

“We are breaking a generational problem,” said Cullen Jones, an Olympic gold medal swimmer who spoke at the Learn to Swim ribbon-cutting event. Jones is the first African American to hold a world record in swimming. 

“Once you learn to swim, you never forget,” said Jones.  

Why Don’t We Know How to Swim?

According to a study by USA Swimming, more than half of Black children cannot swim. Black children also drown at almost three times the overall rate.

The problem comes from a historical lack of accessibility to swimming. This goes back to Jim Crow laws, when racially segregated areas included public swimming pools. Black Americans were left without access to pools and the resources to learn to swim.

Just as Jim Crow laws started ending, many cities stopped building new public pools.  Expensive membership-based pools grew in popularity, making swimming a privilege.

Due to this, swimming is often viewed as a White activity.  

In addition, parents who do not know how to swim are not likely to teach their children to swim.

A 2017 USA Swimming Foundation study found that if an individual cannot swim, there is only a 13% chance that their child will learn to swim.

Cullen Jones: the First African American to Have a World Record in Swimming

Cullen Jones

Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones, originally from the Bronx, New York, became the first Black swimmer for Team USA to set a world record.  At the U.S. 2008 Olympics he won gold as part of the 4×100 freestyle relay.  In the 2012 Olympics, he took home three medals:  gold in the 4 x 100 medley relay, silver in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay and an individual silver in the 400 m freestyle.  

After nearly drowning at a water park at five years old, Jones was terrified of the water.  After the incident, his mother enrolled him in swimming lessons and it was clear Jones had a natural talent.

Now, Jones travels the world educating adults and young people about the importance of water safety and the importance of diversity and equality in swimming.

Parkwood Pool to Reopen this Summer

The Unified Government said Parkwood Pool, 950 Quindaro Blvd. will open this summer starting Memorial Day Weekend.

Last summer, Parkwood Pool was closed due to the pandemic and staffing issues. That caused protests in the KCK community, with many community members concerned there were not enough activities to keep community youth busy.

This year, the Unified Government has been working on recruiting more lifeguards for the upcoming season. So far, there are six applicants.  Officials are hoping for more now that they are increasing pay for lifeguards to $15 per hour.

Candidates will also be eligible for free lifeguard certification classes.  The UG will offer lifeguards in good standing a bonus of $100 mid-season and $200 at the end of the summer season.

“Saving lives is so important,” said Angel Obert, KCK Parks and Recreation Department director. “The jobs that our youth do every day are so important to our community and they need to be recognized for that.”

Lifeguard applicants must be 16 years old and older to apply. To apply, visit:https://www.wycokck.org/Engage-With-Us/News-articles/Parkwood-Lifeguards-2022.

The Parkwood Pool is also hiring for a summer Aquatic Manager paying $18 per hour and a summer Aquatic Assistant Manager paying $17 per hour.

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