By Tom Momberg
There are over 1,800 public schools serving about 1.1 million students in the city, and only a handful of them have swimming pools—meaning most city kids do not get water safety education.
Because water will play a part in most people’s lives at some point in time, the lack of education is what is so alarming to Orlando Nazario, the aquatics director for The Boys’ Club of New York’s Abbe Clubhouse in Flushing, 133-01 41st Road.
“The water safety factor is the biggest thing,” Nazario said. “Predominantly kids of color and kids from the inner city have a higher drowning rate as opposed to those kids who do not. They just aren’t around the water as often – they don’t get those life lessons early.”
The rate at which black children ages five to 19 years old drown in swimming pools is 5.5 times higher than it is for white children, while Hispanic children drown about 50 percent more often than white children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The Boys Club’, which was created by philanthropist E. H. Harriman in the late 19th century as a way to get kids off the streets and into a productive learning environment, now has almost 3,500 members at its three clubhouses — each of which is equipped with a swimming pool.
Between its three clubhouses, the Boys’ Club taught 662 boys in its Red Cross-certified Learn to Swim program in 2015. Starting this year, the Boys Club is making the swim classes mandatory for all members — unless their parents wish to opt them out — in hopes of making a significant impact on water safety and the alarming drowning statistics facing ethnic minorities.
“People take their kids to Great Adventures and other water parks, beaches and pools in the summertime, and you would be alarmed at the number of kids who don’t want to get in the water but their parents force them,” Nazario said.
Nazario has been involved with the Boys Club for about 30 years, from being a member to an employee. He said he is in debt to the club and loves to give back by helping young people learn, grow and find an interest in swimming. He said he sees a piece of himself in each of them.
“I am from the inner city and lived in low-income housing,” Nazario said. “There weren’t many options for me as a young man except maybe hanging out in the street with my friends, maybe getting up to no good. The Boys’ Club was a sanctuary for me away from that, which most parents wanted their boys to attend because of that.”
The Learn to Swim program also encourages boys to advance. The Boys’ Club offers junior lifeguarding courses, free Red Cross lifeguard training, coaches a nationally competitive swim team and give teens and young adults opportunities for leadership and employment in and around the pool.
Ameer Walker, 15, a sophomore at the Eagle Academy in Jamaica, has been a Boys’ Club member for close to five years. When he arrived at the Abbe Clubhouse, he knew the basics of swimming, but this year he will be competing on the swim team in Washington, D.C. as team captain and is taking courses to become a lifeguard.
“I tried playing football and baseball and I like sports, but I wanted something different — I developed a passion for swimming,” Walker said. “Now people in school come up to me and ask me to teach them to swim, which feels great. I really like to help people out a lot.”
Although there is a waiting list for membership, families can register boys ages 6 or older for $5 for a full school year term, or $25 for a summer term. Everything from private tutoring, arts, swimming and reading help is included.
Nazario said the cost benefit is a “no-brainer.”
To learn more or to register at Manhattan or Queens clubhouses, visit www.bcny.org/
There are other options for swim classes in Queens, including those offered by the YMCA at locations throughout the borough, the Community House, Take Me to the Water Swim School or the Astoria Sports Complex.
Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomb