MCCLELLANVILLE — Under the thick, wet blanket of 90-degree heat that defines most summer days here, 9-year-old Olivia Thornton was eager for her favorite part of day camp: swimming lessons.
She climbed the ladder and lowered herself into the 3-foot-deep pool set up on Lincoln High School’s front lawn. Ducking her head under water, she glided straight to the pool’s edge — something she wouldn’t have dared do three summers ago, before the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission added swimming lessons to the camp program.
“I was afraid that I couldn’t swim,” she said.
After a week of daily lessons the first summer, Thornton let go of that fear. Now she said she has fun swimming. She’s even skilled enough to join a competitive swim team, according to swimming instructor Samuel Edwards.
Thornton is among three students in her swimming class who have reached the proficient level. She can do all the strokes: freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke. She’s even working on nailing the butterfly.
What’s most important, according to PRC Executive Director Tom O’Rourke, is that Thornton and the estimated 435 other children in the rural camp programs are learning skills that could save their lives.
The recreation agency started using the portable training pool in the Odyssey Camps in McClellanville, Baptist Hill and Johns Island because most kids in those rural areas didn’t otherwise have a safe environment where they could learn how to swim with trained instructors and lifeguards.
That’s part of the reason those communities, which are surrounded by creeks and other bodies of water, see a higher rate of drowning deaths than urban areas, where public pools with swimming lessons are more available.
But O’Rourke said the training program isn’t enough to curb the problem.
“People are drowning and dying in this community because they live all around water, but they’re fearful of that water,” he said. “So we feel like it’s a responsibility for us as we improve the quality of life for people in this community to remove that fear.”
That’s why the Genesis Project was set in motion in 2014. O’Rourke helped form a committee of concerned residents and members of its nonprofit arm, the Parklands Foundation, to find a way to bring public pools to rural parts of the county.
The effort reached its first milestone earlier this month when committee members walked the site of a future pool at the city of Charleston’s Johns Island Park at 1727 Bozo Lane.
Committee member Jennifer Holmes stood on the pool site on a recent July morning, flooded with emotions. The project is named after her 13-year-old son, Genesis Holmes, who drowned in a pond on private property near their Hollywood home in May 2014.
Genesis didn’t know how to swim. Nobody in the family did.
Holmes said she’ll never understand why he decided to get in the water that day with his friend, who survived.
“I keep asking myself,” she said in a shaky voice as she squeezed the hand of Frannie Reese, a friend and fellow committee member.
“It was shocking,” Holmes said. “But he was 13 ... and when you’re at that age, you want to do what your friend (does), you know?”
Genesis was in the demographic — black, male teenagers — most at risk of drowning in South Carolina, according to a 2015 report by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The state’s numbers mirror a national trend reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010, which said, “Factors such as access to swimming pools, the desire or lack of desire to learn how to swim ... may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates.”
Holmes said a fear of water and a lack of public pools were the main reasons why many of her friends and family members in Hollywood never learned how to swim.
“They didn’t have them in schools,” she said. “But I think if we were given the opportunity, I believe I would know how to swim, and that Genesis would have known how to swim.”
It’s a struggle every day to overcome the loss, she said. But, unexpectedly, it has given her a new purpose.
Holmes overcame her lifelong fear of water and decided to start taking swimming lessons at St. Andrews Family Fitness Center every weekend with seven other members of her family. She is training to be a lifeguard while working to raise funds for the Genesis Project. Her dream is to one day be a lifeguard or a swim instructor at one of the program’s new pools.
“I really believe that I’m being used right now as a mission from God to help others,” she said, leaning into Reese for support. “We are standing on the first pool that is going to be built, right here. It’s going to change lives forever. I know Genesis is proud.”
The PRC will pay the estimated $1 million to construct the Johns Island pool, which will probably be 25 yards long and six or eight lanes wide, O’Rourke said. The money already has been approved, but it could take up to a year to complete the financing. Design and construction likely will take another 18 months after that, he said.
Unlike the PRC’s three water parks that collect admission fees and concession revenue, the rural pools won’t be expected to cover their own operation costs.
Instead, The Parklands Foundation is working to raise the money to operate and maintain them. The Johns Island pool alone could cost about $125,000 annually, O’Rourke said.
Once built, the pool would host swimming programs for day camps in the summer and perhaps exercise classes for older residents. One of O’Rourke’s dreams is to see a swim team practice there.
“When you go to the swim meets, you’ve got Wando against Stratford against West Ashley. And you know, I just want to stand there one day and watch the Johns Island High School (team),” he said. “I don’t even care how they do. Just get them to the starting blocks.”
Details about other planned pools are less clear at this point. The Genesis Project committee wants at least one public pool in two other rural areas of Charleston County, the Awendaw-McClellanville area as well as the Hollywood-Ravenel area.
“We say three pools, but who knows? It could be more, it could be less,” O’Rourke said. “We aren’t going to be satisfied until we have reduced the drownings for people in this area.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.