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'Splash' group helps kids of color learn to swim

  • Story Highlights
  • Program aims to cut high drowning rate among people of color
  • Study: Nearly 60 percent of African-Americans can't swim, twice rate of white kids
  • CDC: African-Americans have the most limited swimming ability
  • Expert: "If this were a disease, this would be an epidemic"
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By Judy Fortin
CNN Medical Correspondent
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Marquez Benson, 9, sits patiently on the edge of the indoor pool at the Boys and Girls Club near downtown Atlanta, Georgia.

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The Make a Splash program offers swimming lessons to inner-city minority kids in hopes of cutting drownings.

When it's finally his turn, the third-grader jumps three feet into the water and into the arms of swim instructor Lisa Vaughn.

Benson is one of hundreds of children this year who will take that first leap into the same pool, tackling their fears and learning how to swim.

"We found the majority of the kids that come through our program do not know how to swim. They're petrified," Vaughn said.

Vaughn is among the instructors for the Make a Splash program, a joint venture of the Boys and Girls Clubs and USA Swimming, the governing body for competitive swimming in the United States.

Make a Splash provides free or low-cost swimming lessons to inner-city minority children. The group's goal is to reduce the drowning rate among African-Americans and Hispanics. Video Health Minute: More on drowning prevention »

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that nine people die from drowning in the United States every day. Among racial groups, the CDC reported, African-Americans have the most limited swimming ability.

A recent study commissioned by the swimming group seemed to confirm the CDC statistics, revealing that nearly 60 percent of African-Americans cannot swim. That's twice the rate of white kids. It was also noted that 56 percent of Hispanic children were non-swimmers.

"If this were a disease, this would be an epidemic," said John Cruzat, diversity specialist for the group.

"We see the disproportionate drownings in communities of color because generationally those parents and grandparents did not have the opportunity or access to quality swim programming," Cruzat said. "As a result they didn't pass it along to their children."

Cruzat also said he has seen children who are taught to stay away from the water altogether.

Cruzat said, "It creates a barrier of fear so they won't even go to the pool or go to the beach."

The nonprofit Make a Splash campaign was designed to break that barrier. Said Cruzat: "We know ultimately we are saving lives in a way that nothing else can."

Health Library

  • MayoClinic.com: Child safety -- prevent drowning

Back in the pool, Vaughn stays within arm's reach of her young students. Many of them are so excited about their new swimming ability, she said, they've convinced their parents to sign up for lessons, too.

The Boys and Girls Club is hoping to have a program in place by fall so adults can learn to swim in the evening after work.

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Until that time, Vaughn expects the pool to be packed this summer. "Kids are like flies. They go and tell their friends and one may come and you may have 10 or 15 wanting to come."

She vowed never to turn anyone away. "No matter how scared they are, what their fears are, we work with them because that's exactly the fear that can cause them to drown."

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