It happens often when Mike Switalski walks into a Buffalo classroom and asks for a show of hands for how many people know how to swim.
“A whole bunch of students will put their hand up,” he said, “and you’ll ask them how. They’ll say, ‘At the splash pad.’
“Well, the water in the splash pad comes up to your knees. So you say, ‘What you’re telling me is if I throw you in 12 feet of water, you’ll be able to get to the side of the pool?’
“Every hand goes down.”
Switalski and his Buffalo City Swim Racers are trying to keep more hands up – one student at a time.
“Unfortunately, we’ve placed a large number of the splash pads in communities that predominantly have a cultural fear of deeper water.”
Switalski revived the swim racers a little over two years ago to provide formal, free swim lessons to low-income families that without the money to provide them to their children. The nonprofit club teaches children from as young as 4 years old through high school age how to swim – if they keep a school GPA at 80 or above, attend school at least 90 percent of the time and come to swim lessons at least eight out of 10 days at a time.
That includes Mark, Fina and Sirmanuel Bell, ages 12, 11 and 8, respectively.
They are among more than 50 students from King Center Charter School who are a part of the city swim club.
“My kids had some basic swimming but when they came here, it became more specialized,” said their father, Russell Bell, a substitute teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools who helps direct the summer camp at the William Emslie YMCA on William Street, where swim club lessons are held afternoons year round.
“Great coaches took the time with the initial group, taught them how to swim, but then raised the bar,” Bell said of the Buffalo City Swim Racers. “Those kids not only learned how to swim but they learned how to compete on a competitive level. They’ve been pretty impressive, including on a district level.”
His daughter, Fina, finished in the top 20 recently in four events during the Niagara LLC Championship meet in Rochester, Switalski said.
Bell sees the program as a “carrot” that encourages his and other kids to work harder in school and make sure they get there consistently.
“Coach Mike stays on this,” he said.
Switalski works with the charter school to get attendance records and report cards.
“Every time a report card comes out, there’s the expectation that I get a copy,” he said. “If I see something I don’t like – which is typically reading comprehension – I sit down with the child we’re dealing with and talk to them about what it’s important.”
Switalski, who also is a physical education teacher at McKinley High School, gives parents of prospective students in the swim club three business cards.
“The first one is for the parent to hold onto,” he said. “The second one is for the parent to give to another family who also might want to consider getting their child involved in the program.
“The third one is to give to the child’s teacher, so if the teacher ever has a behavior or academic problem with the child, or maybe that child did something great that day that they want the child to be recognized for, I get a call. If it’s a behavioral thing, we’ll sit that child out of practice, but make them watch the practice – keep that carrot in front of them, watch how much fun the other kids are having – maybe for 5 minutes, maybe for the entire practice. So they’re reminded that behavior is a critical element of character development."
Swim club students come from all over the city.
"We prefer, but don’t limit it to, families that don’t have discretionary funds," Switalski said. “There are very few families that have the ability to pay for everything. The fees for a typical swim club for a 13-, 14-year-old child can range from $1,000 to $2,000. ... A thousand dollars to these families when the average household income is about $20,000 a year is 5 percent of their entire income for the year. They can afford that. If a family comes in at above our threshold income, there are some things we’ll ask them to provide."
The program, affiliated with USA Swimming – the organizing body that oversees youth swimming clubs across the country – sets rigorous standards for those who coach students.
“There’s a background check,” Switalski said. “There’s an athlete protection program they have to go through. There’s a Foundations Level 101 coaching they have to go through, a rules and regulations exam. They have to be certified in lifeguard, first aid, CPR, AED training."
Bell said he and his wife, Tammhy, have been pleased with the caliber of the program and its coaches – and, like Switalski, expressed the hope that it will grow to include more children across the city.
The program includes so many intangibles, he said.
“The relationship building process, helping kids. They talk about making healthy choices and become role models, and in some cases to a certain degree, surrogate fathers. They may not realize it but they are filling in those roles in a certain way.
“My wife and myself are thoroughly satisfied with the program,” Bell said. “We like the coaches. We like the compassion. They care. These young coaches really care and Coach Mike has a passion.”
Buffalo City Swim Racers survives on private and public grant money.
“The Margaret Wendt Foundation has been very good to us,” Switalski said. “M&T Bank, too. We’ve had a national merchandiser commit some merchandise as an incentive for the kids. The kids that meet the 80 GPA, 90 percent attendance in school and 80 percent attendance to our practices get a backpack each year. We have a local commercial real estate developer that gives us free office space in one of their buildings. Telesco Creative Group has done all of our marketing for us. They’ve created our brochure and letterhead for us, all pro bono.
“We partner with the fire department every June on a water safety event that’s open to the community. .... We started the water festival in honor of a young man named Mustafa Ismail. Two years ago, he and his sister were walking along the Niagara River. She fell in. He jumped in to save her. He was ultimately able to save her but couldn’t save himself.”
Fina Bell is among nine members of the club who now competes against swim team members from other clubs across the region, something her parents hope may someday lead to college scholarship opportunities.
What sort of impact has the program made on participants, their families and city neighborhoods?
“We’re starting to get the trust of the community we’re trying to work with and I think that’s evidenced by the fact that we did a pilot program with only 15 kids in November and December of 2012 and we took three months off to evaluate how thinks went, and all 15 kids returned the following March,” Switalski said. “Since March 2013, we’ve had over 200 kids come through the program, 132 last year alone. Some of the kids are still with us today. ... That tells us we’re doing the job in the community and we’re getting these kids to feel like they belong to something – and we have the trust of the parents."
What might the future hold?
“All of our money comes from donations and grants,” Switalski said. “We’re at the mercy of both public money and private donors. If we had a sugar daddy that had unlimited funds for us we would be in all 21, 22 pools in the Buffalo Public Schools. We would be in all the community centers in Buffalo that had pools and both YMCAs and we’d be in all the city of Buffalo pools. And we’d have between 50 and 100 kids per location, giving us between 2 and 3,000 kids in the program in any given year.
“That would be my utopian goal. For 2016, we would like to expand to two additional pools and bring on an additional 150 to 200 kids between those two pools and get more kids into the competitive side of the program.”
Swimming is the only sport you can learn that has the potential to one day save your life, Switalski said, estimating that as many as 24,000 city school children would benefit from learning how to swim.
Bell sees the program as a chance for city kids “not only to learn how to swim,” he said, “but build some lasting, lifelong skills.”
On the Web, see photos of a recent class at galleries.buffalonews.com.