Common Ground

Getting Into the Swim

Your support for the Parks Foundation’s swimming lesson scholarships has helped more than a decade of Minneapolis kids feel safe in the water.

On a steamy summer day in Minneapolis, Sarah Chillo, Aquatics Manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, can expect upwards of 10,000 parks users to dive in and take advantage of the city’s beaches, pools, water parks and splash pads. 

She and her team can also expect to rescue nearly a dozen struggling swimmers at risk of drowning–a rate of one to two rescues a day at every location where MPRB has lifeguards on duty. 

Statistics like that explain why Chillo is so passionate about the power of swimming lessons, and for the Minneapolis Parks Foundation’s long-time support for swimming scholarship programs around the city. “Swimming lessons are the best deterrent to drowning. It’s a bit like learning a language, where if you’re exposed to it early, and get the opportunity to be comfortable in the water from a young age, you’re going to develop the water competency it takes to be safer in the water for the rest of your life,” she says. “From the jump, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation has stepped up to ask where the needs are greatest, and what they can do to make swimming lessons more accessible for more families.” 

For more than a decade, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation has been a major supporter of free swimming lessons, using directed grants to help narrow the “swimming gap” that’s still evident in communities of color. According to a recent study from the USA Swimming Foundation, nearly two-thirds of Black/African American children are unable to swim, compared to 60 percent of white children who can. As a result, black kids are more than three times as likely as white kids to drown–a trend that Chillo says is also true for kids from Latino, Hmong and immigrant communities.  

“For a lot of kids growing up in Minnesota, swimming is just a natural part of summer, but if you’re new to lakes and beaches, or never really learned to swim, you may not understand the risks,” says Jay Halvorson, a Parks Foundation board member, and a former advisory member of People for Parks, which began directing donor contributions toward swimming lessons following several tragic drownings within the East African immigrant community. Since the Parks Foundation’s merger with People for Parks, the swim lesson legacy has been carried forward through the People for Parks Fund which now awards scholarship funding to MPRB every year. This year, your contributions are providing free lessons for 6- to 12-year-olds in the RecPlus programs at Webber and Harrison parks. 

“Investing in swimming lessons is about safety, and it’s also about equity,” says Chillo, who offers these tips for staying safe and having fun in Minneapolis parks this summer:

1) Sign up for lessons: If cost is a barrier to signing up for swim lessons, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has a Fee Assistance Program to help. “If you are a Minneapolis resident and anyone in your family qualifies for free or reduced lunch, you qualify,” says Chillo, adding that scholarships can be used multiple times each season, and for multiple children. “We love to get whole families signed up at once to make it simpler for parents and more fun for everyone. The sooner you can build that foundation with swimming the better.” 

2) Put down your phone: Nearly every rescue Minneapolis lifeguards make each summer are for kids under the age of 12 who are accompanied by a parent. “Parents, please remember what matters and turn off your phone,” Chillo says. “Don’t take lifeguards for granted. You know your child best, and if you have your eye on them–or even better, if you’re in the water with them–that’s the best way to guarantee a safe afternoon.”

3) Dive a little deeper: If you love swimming, be sure to check out the lessons, classes and clubs offered through the Minneapolis parks. From the Junior Swim Club offered at Phillips Aquatics Center, to the Open Swim Club communities at Nokomis and Cedar lakes, to the Chain of Lakes Open Swim coming August 27, there are  plenty of great ways to dive into the city of lakes this season. 

4) Support the People for Parks Fund: Your donations to our People for Parks Fund helps to keep swimming lessons and water safety within reach for hundreds of young parks users every year. Whether you support our Posters for Parks show (coming October 14), or make a direct donation, your contributions help the next generation discover what’s possible through our parks. 

YOUR DONATION helps ensure the parks in our city remain accessible, equitable and serving everyone.