Learners fill the pools

Charleston Recreation Department swimming instructor Dan McCarthy works with students Wednesday during a lesson at the Martin Luther King Jr. pool.

Brad Nettles

Five-year-old Brooklyn takes a deep breath and lets the instructor dip her under the water as she takes the first steps toward learning to swim at one of Charleston's public pools.

For the first time in recent memory, the first sessions of summer swimming lessons at the city's downtown pools are full, and pool-side parents said a recent spate of drownings is one reason why.

In the past month at least five residents in the tri-county area have drowned in local pools and ponds. Three of them were 7 or younger.

"We're all aware of the drownings around the Lowcountry," said Octavia Gathers, who enrolled three of her children in lessons that started this week at Martin Luther King Jr. pool.

"I figure, the more they know, the safer they will be," she said. "I had to make it happen."

The recent drownings, and the deaths Feb. 18 of three Sandy Island residents whose boat capsized on the Waccamaw River, also focused attention on studies that have found that black children are far less likely to know how to swim than children of other races.

At the MLK pool, Renee White, Brooklyn's mother, also said the recent drowning deaths reinforced her desire to get lessons for her children. Her 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son will start lessons later this month.

"I learned to swim at an early age," White said. "I don't want my kids to be fearful of the water."

Children can take two weeks of American Red Cross swimming lessons at one of Charleston's public pools for $20 (or $30 for non-city residents).

Classes at the West Ashley and James Island pools fill up every year, but that was not true at the MLK and Herbert Hasell pools downtown until this summer.

"Before, we've had to cancel classes, and we've had classes with one or two kids," said Laurie Yarborough, director of the Charleston Recreation Department. "This summer we have really been blown away by the numbers."

Charleston has nearly 900 children in swimming classes, with about two-thirds of them coming from summer camps, including those run by the city, and the rest taking regular lessons. Registration for the third and fourth sessions of classes, starting July 13 and July 27, will begin July 6 at the city pools.

The city also offers free "drown-proofing" classes two days a week for children living near the downtown pools, which are located near large public housing projects. Also, the YWCA of Greater Charleston launched a swimming lesson program for disadvantaged youth called "swim for life" that is taught at the MLK pool, and serves 20 children.

"We have all this water around, and lots of kids who don't know how to swim, and that doesn't make sense," said Kathleen Rodgers, YWCA executive director. "Obviously there's been a lot of talk in the community."

In North Charleston, Libby Poole runs the city's swimming program, and said between 300 and 400 children are enrolled in the 27 classes offered daily at the two city pools. Registration for the city's second session of lessons begins June 29.

"You hear the parents on the (pool) deck talking about all the drownings going on," Poole said. "It opens their minds up to what can happen."