We Can Swim: an 'opportunity to change culture'

The founders of We Can Swim! hope to save lives by teaching underserved children how to swim

· April 27, 2014, 7:00 pm   ·  Updated April 28, 2014, 1:24 am

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We Can Swim! volunteers taught West Philadelphia children to swim at Pottruck this past Saturday.


In his own words, environmental studies graduate student Daniel Schupsky “cannot remember not being able to swim.”

“I learned to swim before I learned to walk,” he said.

College senior Clarissa Palmer believes “swimming taught me values that led me to Penn.”

The importance of swimming is what brought Palmer, Schupsky and Marc Christian, who is getting a master’s degree in education, together to found We Can Swim!, a nonprofit group that provides swimming education for underserved children in West Philadelphia.

The group offered its first lesson on March 16, 2013, to Henry C. Lea Elementary School students. Over the past year, We Can Swim! also began offering lessons to other local public school students from Benjamin B Comegys Elementary School and the Samuel B Huey School.

Schupsky, an assistant coach for the men’s and women’s swimming teams and an aquatics coordinator at Pottruck, said that his drive to help start We Can Swim! came from his research into the possibility of developing a community pool.

He noticed from statistics he read that black and latino groups had higher drowning rates than other populations, and he felt that was something that needed to be changed.

“This population is really vulnerable,” he said, but added that We Can Swim! provides “the opportunity to change culture and potentially save someone’s life” — like he once did as a child.

At the age of six, he jumped into his neighbor’s pool and saved a three-year-old child from drowning. “I really remember this kid just sinking to the bottom,” Schupsky said. That intervention is the oldest memory he has of swimming.

Schupsky tells the adolescent learners of We Can Swim! that they, too, can save the life of a younger sibling or friend.

“Kids drowned last summer in Philly. They don’t know how to swim because their parents don’t know how to swim,” Schupsky said. “They are underserved. They lack access to facilities and instruction.”

In the first year of We Can Swim!, “there was a child who jumped in on the first day and immediately began drowning. He had zero swim skill,” Palmer said. By the program’s eighth week, the child pushed off from the wall and was “essentially swimming all by himself.”

Unlike her cousins, Palmer was fortunate enough to learn how to swim because, for her parents, there was “no question” about the matter.

“Now I want to give back to kids in West Philly,” Palmer said. “Maybe we can inspire kids to go on to a college they would never expect to get into, or become an Olympian.”

Palmer will be attending Brooklyn Law School next fall. She hopes to continue working with nonprofits and underprivileged urban youth.

As for Schupsky, he’s “not in a rush to leave Penn” because of opportunities for community service such as We Can Swim!

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