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African American Drowning Disparity / Community Stories Summer 2012

It doesn't matter what color you are -- if you're a kid, you're probably attracted to water.  

But, tragically, hundreds of kids die every year from drowning.  We looked at the research and found a disturbing statistic: African American children are considerably more likely to die from drowning than their Caucasian counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

We contacted local experts from the City of Milwaukee's Health Department and the YMCA to shed light on the issue.

"Actually there is a disparity. It's quite notable in the African American population as a whole in terms of drowning deaths, as compared to the white population," said Paul Biedrzycki, Director of Disease Control and Environmental Health for the City of Milwaukee.

With more than 20 years experience as a Red Cross certified swim instructor, Biedrzycki has a personal connection to the issue.  He has seen the problem first-hand.

"African American drowning deaths are little more than three times that of the white population, especially in the age group of 5 to 14 years of age," he said.

One the biggest problems, he says, is access.

"Access and availability to swimming pools is absolutely critical, and I don't think that is always available to populations, especially poorer populations in urban environments," Biedrzycki said.

The drowning disparity is a delicate topic to discuss.  Social inequalities and economic barriers have hindered the black community's access to swimming pools and beaches.  They weren't even fully desegregated until 1971, following a contentious Supreme Court ruling.

Now, more than 40 years later, the YMCA is leading a program targeting this very issue.  It's called Swim School.

"It provides swim lessons free of cost to minority children within the area of the Northside YMCA," said Jessica Mieling, director of Aquatics of the YMCAs in Metro Milwaukee. 

Beyond the socioeconomic barriers to swim access, there is another cultural disconnect.  And it's less tangible.

"I think fear is really the biggest hindrance and obstacle in getting people people to swim.  If they have a fear it's very difficult to convince them that's it's not scary," Mieling said.

Swim School is aimed at young students, getting them in the water before fears runs too deep.  On a personal note, I can certainly relate.  As a child, I used to love to dive from the highest allowable platform at the Walter Schroeder Center.  Nowadays, you couldn't pay me to do the same.

"Second and third graders are at the age group where it really takes hold in learning.  After that point, a lot of their fears are more deep rooted," Mieling said.  "It really hits home with them, and it's something they can retain."

"It is very easy to learn to swim if you can get over those fear obstacles," she added.

For more information on Swim School, contact the Northside YMCA at (414) 265-9622.


For the audio version of this story, click the podcast player below.