Penn students teach West Philadelphia children how to swim

About 15 students participate in the "We Can Swim!" program every Saturday

· April 8, 2013, 12:31 am

Zoe Gan | DP

Zaki Williams and College sophomore Elyssa Pedote practice a stroke in the Pottruck pool as part of the ‘We Can Swim!’ program for Lea Elementary School students.


Seventy percent of black children and 60 percent of Latino children don’t know how to swim, according to the USA Swimming Foundation. This worrisome statistic sparked the creation of the “We Can Swim!” program at Penn.

Every Saturday morning, about 15 Penn students take an hour out of their mornings to give students from Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia swimming lessons. The swim instructors range from members of the swimming team and club to graduate students.

“The Lea school is probably the most underprivileged school in this immediate area — their economics are really low and … they don’t make adequate yearly progress,” assistant coach of Penn’s Swimming and Diving team Dan Schupsky said. “We wanted to make sure this was going to the most underserved school in the area,” because drowning rates are high among urban, disadvantaged children.

College junior and a member of the Penn women’s swimming team Clarissa Palmer was inspired to create the program after receiving an email in August 2012 from one of her assistant coaches. The email outlined statistics related to children who don’t know how to swim.

Palmer explained that both her background in swimming and the general lack in swim education in certain communities served as motivation for her to pursue this project.

“We Can Swim!” is part of a bigger swim initiative called “Make a Splash,” which is a national organization that has different branches that teach kids to swim, Palmer said.

The program has the potential for affecting change far beyond the pool at Pottruck.

Currently, Schupsky said, the public pools available in West Philadelphia are substandard, and have seen little use from the neighborhood, and “We Can Swim!” can potentially change that.

“If [children] have swimming skills they’ll begin to want better facilities, [and] the pools in West Philadelphia are really dilapidated,” Schupsky said. “They’ll start saving pools and start looking at them as places where they can expand their education, grow and recreate and have healthy lives.”

Schupsky, along with assistant coach Marc Christian, oversees the program and helps Palmer with whatever it is she needs on an administrative level.

However, it is the Penn students who dive into the pool with the children and teach them a variety of skills, whether it be teaching them the breast stroke or just to let go of the wall in the pool.

Lessons are for children in the second through fourth grades, from ages 8 to 12.

“Those are important ages when kids are impressionable to learning how to swim and maintaining the swimming skills,” Schupsky said. “In 6 years if this keeps going maybe a kid who started in second grade will be a proficient swimmer by the time he’s in eighth grade.”

The hardest part of getting everything together was in the weeks leading up to the start of the program, according to Palmer.

“The hard work began with getting administration at this school involved and getting the program approved ­— making sure that there’s pool space for us every Saturday and renting out the pool,” Palmer said. “Once the program started and the base was already there it was easy and ran smoothly — there were no problems and the kids have fun.”

“We have a general curriculum but the most important thing is giving them experience in the water so that when they’re on their own they can be comfortable,” College freshman and one of the swim instructors Emma Soren said. “We’ve already seen awesome progress — it’s really empowering and cool to see [the kids] having a good time and enjoying themselves.”

“Working with the kids is an amazing experience,” College freshman Dana Stone said. “This past Saturday one of my boys I teach swam on his own for the first time and it was amazing. He wouldn’t stop smiling — he was so proud of himself.”

Palmer and assistant coaches Schupsky and Christian believe the program has much room to grow and expand.

“It’s an easy way for Penn to show a commitment to West Philadelphia with a facility that isn’t being used Saturday mornings,” Christian said. “They’re learning a life skill that’s going to stick with them for the rest of their lives and I think we’re really just scratching the surface.”

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