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Sink or Swim – One woman’s mission to save children from drowning

From the day they are born, we want to protect our children from harm. We child proof our homes. We install nanny-cams. We tell them to not speak to strangers. We warn them against playing with fire. Tell them to look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t do drugs. When on fire – stop, drop, and roll. Some children can dial 911 to report an emergency before they can even read.

Then shouldn’t every child be protected from drowning by learning how to swim?

That’s what longtime water safety instructor, Leslie Paul, thought when she stumbled upon an article in Aquatics International examining the disparity in drowning rates amongst minority children in America.

The article found that black children between the ages of 5 and 19 are 2.6 times more likely to drown than whites.

“Even though I had been a swimming instructor for over 20 years, I was not aware of the statistics,” Paul told Hampton Roads Social. “Naturally, as someone who teaches water safety, I was concerned,” she said.

And even more worrisome, Paul said, when you consider that Hampton Roads is surrounded by water.

Paul didn’t do anything right away with the information from the article, but she filed it in the back of her mind.

That was back in 2006.

Then in 2007, Paul found herself out of a job.

“They shut down the ODU Field House, and I was suddenly unemployed,” she said. “Around the same time, my father whom I’d been caring for passed away.”

Paul recalled the Aquatics International article.

“I thought it was a sign,” she explained. “Everything seemed to line up and point me towards turning my passion for swimming and my experience into something meaningful.”

Armed with some money her father had left her, and a lot of wide-eyed optimism, Paul decided to start the non-profit, Really Awesome People Swimming (or RAPS), with its mission to give free swim lessons and water safety instruction to minority children from disadvantaged communities in Hampton Roads.

Leslie Paul

“I spent countless hours writing letters and making calls for donations,” Paul said. “I reached out to community and church groups, got children signed up, and recruited swimming instructors.”

Soon the RAPS program caught the attention of local media. It was one of those ‘feel good’ stories that local media work hard to bring to viewers: “Local woman starts program to help save children from drowning.”

Who would have anything negative to say about such a story?

“I was not prepared for what happened after we made the news,” Paul said. “I was in shock.”
Expecting to read kudos from viewers in the comments section, Paul encountered an unleashing of vitriol.

Unbeknownst to Paul, minority swimming is a hot button issue for many.

The criticism came not only from some in the black community, who took it as a personal affront to suggest minorities could not swim, and from whites who criticized that Paul was offering lessons only to minority children.

“ What a crock!” one commenter spat. “…What exactly is a minority? In my neighborhood I’m a minority and I am white,” the viewer wrote. “I don’t have the money to spend for [swimming lessons]… Can I bring my white daughter up there to participate in RAPS, or is it for blacks only?”

He or she didn’t stop there.

“Why in the pictures on here and their website do they only show black children in the pool? I didn’t see a single white child being taught how to swim.”

From an African American viewer:

“I think this story is extremely misleading and… it does perpetuate a stereotype,” wrote the viewer. “I am a 47 year old African American female… who… learned to swim as a small child and so did all of my 5 siblings. I know many more African-Americans who can swim than [those] who cannot… The generalizations must stop! They are condescending and insulting to me and others like me.”

Indeed, like most issues of race in America, swimming amongst minorities has long been a touchy subject, much of it stemming from the era of segregation when blacks were denied access to swimming pools, and none were available in African American communities.

Parents who couldn’t swim usually begot children who couldn’t swim. Not because there is anything inherently deficient, but because of several socio-economic and cultural factors. You can read more theories for low black American swimming rates here.

[According to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study Among Blacks, drowning rates increase through childhood and peak at 15 to 19 years of age. Drowning rates among Whites are higher than Blacks and Hispanics between ages zero and 4 years of age, and then decrease from 5 to 14, and peak between ages 15 to 24 years. Among Hispanics, drowning rates increase substantially at 15 to 19 years, and peak between the ages of 20 and 24 years.]

People can argue about history and stereotypes, or they can be part of the solution, Paul thought. She chose to be part of the solution.

Undeterred, Paul took some of the negative comments to heart and made some changes.

In retrospect, Paul says she should have made it clear that the program is open to any child who does not have the means to pay for swimming lessons. In fact, when classes are not full, RAPS will also provide lessons, free of charge, to adults who wish to learn how to swim.

“It’s about saving lives,” Paul said.

And she went even further.

When “black girl hair issues” were brought to her attention, Paul found a swimming organization to donate swim caps so that the girls could learn without fearing that their hair would get wet or damaged.

Sporty bathing caps

RAPS day one

It costs the non-profit $50 for each child enrolled in the program. Paul continues to use some of her own money to run RAPS, but also relies on donations from businesses, private citizens, and foundations. She receives no government funding.

Listening carefully to water safety rules

This summer, when 9 year old Xaria Lucas and a group of more than 50 children rolled up in a school bus to the Windsor Oaks Pool in Virginia Beach, she could not swim. None of the children sponsored by Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News could.

Sharing experience with Hampton Roads Social

A male bonding experience

“I was a little scared the first day” soft spoken Xaria told Hampton Roads Social. “I didn’t want to put my head in the water, but the instructor told me to just be brave.”

One of those instructors is Rachel Tucker who has been a Water Safety Instructor (WSI) with RAPS for five years.

“I grew up around swimming, and I really wasn’t aware about the drowning numbers until I joined RAPS,” Tucker told Hampton Roads Social. “It wonderful to know that by doing something I love, I am also helping save lives.”

In one incredible week, Xaria was graduated as RAPS’ 1,000th swimmer.

1000th graduate, Xaria Lucas interviewed by Kurt Williams, WTKR

Learning to trust

Rachel Tucker has been a water safety instructor with RAPS for 5 years.

Showing off skills learned in one week!

Leslie Paul with future student – An Achievable Dream principal, Catina Clark.

Former Leslie Paul student, WVEC News Anchor Regina Mobley donated cake for 1,000th graduate celebration

An Achievable Dream students seek autograph from WTKR News Anchor, Kurt Williams

Click HERE to learn how you can help RAPS

Click HERE to see more photos from the June 24 – June 28 “An Achievable Dream” group.

 
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Comments (2)

  1. Leslie Paul Wednesday - 10 / 07 / 2013 Reply
    Thanks so much for coming out and seeing the program in action! Great pictures!
  2. Connie Chrismore Wednesday - 24 / 07 / 2013 Reply
    I have worked with Leslie for many years and have been with her through the highs and lows of the program. Working with the RAPS program and seeing the joy on the faces of children - of all colors - is one of my greatest joys. I am glad to see Leslie get the kudos she so richly deserves.

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