Making a Difference — Spring Break in the Bahamas

How in the world, in a country composed of over 700 islands, can fewer than 20 per cent of the children know how to swim? It’s not as though I’m talking about inhospitable, cold waters but rather the warm, amazingly clear and blue waters of the Bahamas.

Drowning deaths in the Bahamas are the second leading cause of accidental death, with only traffic accidents causing more. The rate of drowning per 100,000 inhabitants is six times greater than in the United States, and an astounding 17 times higher than in the United Kingdom.

As a lifelong open water swimmer, I was honoured to be selected as one of the volunteers for the 2019 SwimTayka swim project on the Bahamian island of Bimini. The goals of SwimTayka are straightforward:

Help low resource communities around the world

1) teach children how to swim with the ultimate goal of saving lives, and
2) educate children about the care of their open water and preserve it for generations to come.

In its third season, the week-long program is open free of charge to any children who want to participate. This year 35 kids joined in, ages 5 to 17, with swimming abilities ranging from “I’m a rock— watch me sink” to marginal at best.

Each morning, the aspiring swimmers sing the Bahamian national anthem and then break into three groups for a 90-minute pool session. Two of the groups focus on being “drown-proofed,” i.e., learning how to float and feeling comfortable in the water. The third group works on improving swimming skills and techniques.

Following the pool session (and snacks, which the kids love, love, love) there is an environmental segment organized and led by Save the Bays—a Bahamian member of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Waterkeeper is composed of over 300 chapters worldwide (including our very own San Francisco Baykeeper) that share a common mission: to fight for every community’s right to drinkable, fishable, and swimmable water. Guest presenters also include members from the Dolphin Communications Project and the Bimini Shark Lab. The two common themes of each environmental session care for the ocean and beaches and preservation for future generations (hopefully creating a cadre of environmental stewards).

The highlight of everyone’s day (children and volunteers alike) is hearing, “Who wants to go the beach?” Without fail, the universal response is an excited chorus of yays and yeses. The beach segment includes beach cleanup along with individual and team-building games and activities. But the real treat is hopping in the ocean and practising pool drills along with having free time.

As my previous swim training with kids has been one-on-one, having a dozen active, enthusiastic youngsters were challenging at first. But as the week progressed I noted an improvement in their swimming skills, although the boundless energy and excitement and their inevitable tendency to drift towards total chaos and mayhem never abated. After all, I reminded myself, they’re in the water having fun, not in a classroom.

Have we made a difference? Only the future will tell. But there were very proud smiles on everyone’s faces at the awards ceremony—which awards, by the way, were handed out by Robert Kennedy, Jr., founder and president of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Volunteering with SwimTayka is truly a unique experience and an opportunity I’m so glad to have had. To find out more about SwimTayka and their learn to swim programs in the Bahamas, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Peru, visit swimtayka.org

By Gary Emich
Original article from THE SOUTH ENDER