CLEVELAND — A nonprofit in Cleveland is teaching 4th graders from Cleveland Metropolitan School District the basics of water safety and how to swim. 

What You Need To Know

  • Memorial Day is the unofficial start to summer and many people are heading to pools and lakes to enjoy the water

  • According to the organization “Stop Drowning Now” drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages one to four

  • A deeper dive into the numbers shows a racial disparity in swimming pools, Black children ages 10-14 drown at rates nearly eight times higher than white children

  • AquaMissions in northeast Ohio is working to change those statistics
  • The nonprofit is bringing the essential life skill to 4th graders of all races and ethnicities in downtown Cleveland 

The free month-long pilot program is a vision come true for Lynne Nagy. She’s the founder of AquaMissions, a nonprofit founded to save and change lives through introductory water experiences, water safety instruction, and swim lessons for Greater Cleveland’s youth.

“We are a waterfront community and learning how to be in and around the water safely is a life skill,” Nagy said. “It's just like reading and writing and math.”

Throughout the months of April and May, Nagy has been helping teach nearly 300 students from Cleveland Metropolitan School District how to swim in partnership with the downtown Cleveland YMCA.

Angieleishka Nazario, a 4th grader, Taylor Bruck/Spectrum News 1

“If you don’t feel like you’re swimming and you’re like, no one’s around, you can just go on your back and you will float so you don’t drown,” said Angieleishka Nazario, a 4th grader. “You get to have free time, spend time with your friends all together and just be in the pool.”

Swimming is such a simple, yet important concept that Nagy said many kids never get a chance to do, especially Black and Hispanic children. Many of the kids in the pilot program have never been in a pool and some have never even been in their neighboring lake, Lake Erie. 

“Statistics show that they don’t go outside of six to 12 blocks of their home,” said Desiree Powell, the executive director of health and physical education for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “So they stay within that bubble. So this gives them a chance to go beyond that bubble and it brings equity for our Cleveland schools compared to the suburbs.”

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African American children in the United States have little to no swimming ability compared to 45% of Hispanic children and 40% for white children. Barriers include cost, lack of transportation and access to pools and parents not knowing how to swim. 

“We see them come, you know, very nervous, most of them not sure what’s going on and then it’s so rewarding to see them at the end of the session, how happy they are and the sense of accomplishment they’ve had,” said Gary Guzy, the director of aquatics and youth and community services at the Downtown Cleveland YMCA.

Lynne Nagy, founder, AquaMissions, Taylor Bruck/Spectrum News 1

To Nagy, swimming is more than a recreational activity. It’s a necessary life skill, and it’s a skill that she said can help the kids live their lives more fully.

“The gateway to learning to swim is a gateway to all kinds of fun in the water,” Nagy said. “Paddle camps, log rolling, kayaking, dragon boating in the Cuyahoga and more. I want to introduce these kids to all of that and have them pick what they would like to do. I could see future sailors.”

Each year she plans to expand the program in hopes of saving and changing more and more lives for generations to come. 

The YMCA was able to fund the swimming lessons, swimsuits and caps through grants from the McKenzie Scott Foundation.

The program is free for students and funded through grants and donations. For more information or to donate visit here.