QUINCY — The air is muggy and heavy with chlorine inside the cavernous room housing the Lincoln-Hancock Community School pool, as 13 youngsters practice blowing bubbles and churning the water
with their kicks.
“Who wants to go to the ropes?” swimming instructor Patrick Greaney asks his class, who are clutching the side of the pool.
Tiny 9-year-old Jennifer Meng raises her hand, and she’s off — gamely propelling herself to the ropes about 5 feet away, and back. A huge smile fills her dripping face as she announces: “I couldn’t do that before. We’re learning how to swim.”
Teaching swimming to Quincy public school students is the goal of a new program operated by the schools and South Shore YMCA, an initiative that grew out of a tragedy — the drowning death of 18-year-old Lamar Thompson — and the dogged efforts of a classmate at Quincy High School to do everything she could to prevent others from dying in a similar way.
Like most of the other students at Quincy High, 18-year-old Amelia Wool was saddened when Thompson drowned last summer at a popular swimming spot near the Quincy Yacht Club. She was stunned, though, when she visited the site and saw how close he was to safety — if only he had known how to swim
“It was less than 25 yards,” she said. “We’re a coastal community, and kids should know how to swim that distance. I didn’t want that ever to happen again.”
Working with the public school administration and the Y, Wool organized free swimming lessons for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders in West Quincy at the Lincoln-Hancock Community School, which has a pool that wasn’t being used during the day. Classes started in February.
And this month, Quincy High students who can’t swim — and have gym the last period of the school day — will be able to walk across the street to take free lessons at the YMCA pool. About 60 students have signed up.
About 75 youngsters are getting lessons at the Lincoln-Hancock pool, and making remarkable progress, according to YMCA aquatic director Stephanie Higgins.
At the beginning of each session, the students are divided into three groups, she said. There are the “white-knucklers” who are afraid of the water, those who aren’t afraid but can’t swim, and those she classifies as novice swimmers. Youngsters in the last group can be in the most danger of getting into trouble in the water if their confidence overmatches their ability to stay afloat, she said.
Midway through the first session, the white-knucklers are all comfortable in the water, those in the middle group are developing basic skills, and the novices “can confidently swim to keep themselves safe,” Higgins said.
Safety is key, since drowning is the second leading cause of childhood
accidental death in the United States, she said. Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to USA Swimming.
“I’ve been aquatic director for six years in this community, and it’s been such a shock to see how late [youngsters] learn to swim,” Higgins said. “I think it’s a financial issue. Times are tough financially, and I don’t know anyone’s individual story, but you have to choose what programs you can afford for your kids. You have to have your priorities, and food and clothing and shelter have to be first in line.”
Higgins, who learned to swim growing up in Weymouth, said studies done for USA Swimming show minorities are less likely to learn to swim, as are children of parents who don’t know how or are afraid of the water. She said she hopes the free lessons will help break that cycle.
Gene Doan, whose 10-year-old son, James, is part of the program, said it’s already happening. Growing up in Vietnam, his own mother was afraid to let him swim in the river and he never learned, he said. Doan said he’s teaching himself now — by watching swimmers in the pool at the condo where the family lives — but he’s grateful his son can get lessons.
“It’s awesome. They learn so quickly, and he loves it,” Doan said.
Huot Meng, who learned to swim by clinging to banana tree logs in the rivers of Cambodia, said he’s also pleased that his daughter, Jennifer, can take formal lessons. He said she feared the water at first, but now she’s upset when the class is canceled for MCAS tests or bad weather.
“I love that the children are getting a chance to not only develop a lifelong skill and something you can use to keep in shape for the rest of your life, but also the confidence of feeling comfortable in the water,” said Lincoln-Hancock principal Ruth Witmer, who “years ago” was a swimming instructor. “They are just blossoming, and some of our families could not afford swim lessons” otherwise.
Witmer said when she started teaching first grade at Lincoln-Hancock in 1992, every student took swimming lessons there. And every fifth-grader in the district took lessons at the pool until they passed a swimming test, she said. The fifth-grade program lasted until 2002, when it was eliminated for budgetary reasons, according to the superintendent’s office.
The pool opened in 1975 and until recently had been used mostly during evenings, weekends, and summers, for swim programs run by the Quincy Recreation Department.
Superintendent Richard DeCristofaro said he’d been hoping to find a way to restore the community spirit in the Lincoln-Hancock neighborhood, using the pool as a hub, and had been talking about increasing the school district’s partnership with the Y. He said it took Wool, though, to kick those plans into high gear, working out the logistics for the swimming lessons and getting students excited about the idea.
“Amelia has a tremendous vision of what communities need and neighborhoods need,” DeCristofaro said. “For a high school student, she certainly is exceptional in how she has a grasp of what’s really important. She’s a leader.”
Quincy High School principal Frank Santoro said he wasn’t surprised that Wool pulled together the swimming program. She could probably teach the classes, as well, he said, since she’s a lifeguard and swimming instructor for both the YMCA and the city recreation department. As the student council liaison to the principal, Wool has a desk outside Santoro’s door and daily tasks that include running assemblies and writing a monthly newsletter.
“We depend on Amelia like any other administrator,” he said. “She’s got a quick pace to her because she always has the next challenge.”
Wool, who plans to become a nurse, said she learned to swim when she was little, in part because her mother was afraid of water and wanted to be sure Amelia wasn’t. Wool said she wants to expand the swimming program she started, but for now she’s just glad that more students are learning how to be safe in the water.
“I was actually able to go and observe [a class], and it was absolutely amazing,” she said. “It’s one thing to have an idea, but it’s a whole different thing to see your idea unfolding in front of you. I’m so happy [we could] take something that was so heartbreakingly sad, and turn it into something positive for the community.”