DETROIT - Margo Duncan Nelson was afraid of the water as a child, but these days she is in the pool almost daily teaching children how to swim.
"As a child, I was petrified of swimming. (I) didn't learn how to swim until I got to college," said Margo Duncan-Nelson.
Nelson, a teacher for 20 years, has spent the last four poolside in Detroit Public Schools. She teaches kindergarten through eighth grade students how to swim at the pool inside Burton International Academy.
She wants the children to have fun as they learn their water skills, but her main priority is safety.
"I teach them, if someone falls in the water, you go get someone, and if they fall in the water that's where I concentrate on the doggy paddling because that's a rescue stroke and they can save themselves at least getting over to the side of the pool to get out," said Duncan-Nelson.
Nelson was running the classes on her own until she received some help from the Boll Family YMCA's Detroit Swims program.
"They sent in over three instructors, two that actually get in the water and one lifeguard, because before they came over, I was lifeguarding, teaching swimming, manning the locker rooms," said Duncan-Nelson. "Because of Detroit Swims, you know, I'm able to kind of exhale a little bit more, the kids get more water time, they're learning more."
The need to teach swimming in Detroit is great with 7 out of 10 children unable to swim according to Detroit Swims. In urban areas, the drowning rate for African American and Latino children is three times higher than kids in the suburbs.
Detroit Swims began nearly three years ago with the goal to teach every child in Detroit how to swim by fifth grade. According to the Boll Family YMCA, children in underserved communities often don't learn water safety and swimming skills, which can lead to a disproportionate amount of deaths and injuries related to swimming each year.
Briana Charleston was one of the first swim instructors for Detroit Swims.
"I grew up in Detroit and I know a lot of my friends from Detroit don't know how to swim," said Briana Charleston.
Charleston saved a friend from drowning when she was seven years old because she knew what to do when she saw someone get in trouble in the water.
"I learned at the Y, so it's really nice for me to see kids who have that passion who want to know things like that so if something happens to themselves, they know how to fix it, if something happens to their friends, they know how to help them as well," said Charleston.
The students at Burton International Academy are improving their water skills, Charleston said she can really see a difference with each swim lesson.
"About 80 percent of the class could not put their face under water. They were completely terrified of the water and now, just being here, seeing them progress, we have kids that can basically swim across the pool," Charleston said.
Burton International Academy's principal Dr. John T Wilson said Nelson is not just teaching children how to swim, her lessons are helping them succeed back in the classroom too.
"In the pool, they're learning our core common standards for MEAP," said Dr. John T Wilson, principal of Burton International Academy. "She's talking about the volume in the water and she is then demonstrating the skills for swimming."
The pool has also become a a big motivator for the students to earn extra swim time for meeting certain classroom targets like reading.
"It's awesome," said second grade student Cody Calmese.
"She give us all the directions in the pool so we don't drown," said Shamariel Parker, a second grade student.
"I don't force anyone to do anything. All I want is participation and I just want you to try," said Duncan-Nelson.
Detroit Swims works with schools, community pools and other urban centers to bring its swim programs to Detroit children. They are currently in the following schools: Mumford High School, Marcus Garvey Academy, Detroit Leadership Academy, Detroit Institute of Technology, and Bethune Academy.
Detroit Swims offers an eight week program that teaches a child to be proficient in swim strokes and water safety. The Boll Family YMCA said it costs about $100 per child to teach them how to swim.
The Y accepts financial donations, donations of swim suits and goggles, and volunteers to help keep Detroit Swims going in the city. For more information on the program or how to help, click here.
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