Camp helps kids conquer fear, get into the swim

Swimming instructors Byron Rounds (hat) and Nate Miller give a lesson at Little Bulldog Summer Camp.

Over the past few weeks, Jeremiah Parker has figured something out.

“You know you can float without holding onto the side?” he said at the Herbert Hasell swimming pool Wednesday.

The 6-year-old was addressing Dante Vick, 6, a few minutes after the two had jumped in with a group of friends from camp. Dante had his qualms.

“The horrible thing that I hate to do is sink,” Dante had said of the experience.

But Dante and Jeremiah hadn’t had too much choice. The two are enrolled in swimming lessons with the Little Bulldog Summer Camp at Burke High School, and they’d just finished their seventh of eight classes.

Before they could run along to their next activity, they had to jump in over their heads. No nose-holding, no easing in.

The camp has offered lessons for years, said Shelia Grier, the director of downtown community education for the Charleston County School District, but this year has set records.

About 75 3- to 13-year-olds are learning to swim, she said, more than the camp has ever had; administrators had to cap the classes’ size. Nearly all the students’ parents said they were interested in enrolling them in lessons.

Enrollment has grown since 2009, Grier said, when the district partnered with the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission and others to form “Swim Safe Lowcountry” and swimming grew as a goal in the schools.

That year saw a spate of drownings and close calls. From May to late June 2009, nine people drowned in the Lowcountry. Three were children.

Swimming classes saw their numbers surge, the school district began offering lessons to kindergartners, and the Bulldogs camp felt a push to teach more kids during the summer.

That push, Grier said, emphasized children living downtown. About three-quarters of the kids in the camp live on the peninsula, and they’re surrounded by water — on bridges and roads, at parks and pools.

“Everywhere they go, they’re walking by water or riding by water,” Grier said. “They’re just so close.”

But back at the pool, that wasn’t what Trayvon Williams and Kristen Jenkins were worried about. They were thinking of more immediate problems after they dabbed their eyes and blew their noses.

They’re okay with putting their faces under water now, but they still don’t care for stinging eyes and water in their sinuses.

Like the rest of their class, they’re getting there ­­— getting used to splashing about without problems. Told to kick in place for 10 seconds with their faces under water, they pop up, exasperated and gasping for breath.

A few minutes before, they’d tried floating on their backs as Byron Rounds, an instructor, counted to five. Hassan Malik did so with arms outstretched, eyes clenched and face motionless.

And as Rounds reached five, the 5-year-old popped up and yelled in celebration. He’d done it.

He and the rest of the campers are getting there. It just takes some figuring out.

Follow Thad Moore on Twitter @thadmoore.