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Swimming for Change For More Than a Century

By Ellen Cleary, Masters Swimmer, English Channel Relay Team and Senior Development Officer at the YWCA
November 30, 2012
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Above, YWCA English Channel swimmers in 2007 just prior to departing for their swim. Back Row (L to R): Dave Cameron, Jordan Jelmeland, Benito Ramirez, Kathleen Shankwitz, Grete Wilt, Byron Hompe, Ellen Cleary, Mattea Allert. Front Row (L to R) Hallee Surber, Sif Nave, Betsy Robertson, Mandy Theissen, Keelin Nave and Priscilla Zee. (Not pictured, Johnathan Haas.)

When I think back to the five months of intense training spent preparing for a relay swim across the English Channel in July 2007, I still cannot quite believe it all happened. That event launched what is currently the Swim for Change campaign, but follows more than 100 years of the work done by the YWCA of Minneapolis to eliminate health disparities and allow access to swimming lessons.

In 1908, the YWCA taught swimming lessons to women in Lake Calhoun, and in 1945, they had the first racially integrated swimming pool in the Twin Cities. This long history of work involving health and social justice was the main reason I agreed to sign up for the English Channel relay team and kickstart Swim for Change; that, and I knew I just had to be a part of the team crossing, no matter how challenging the swim would be!

Besides training for long-distance open-water swimming in very cold temperatures, we also talked with our friends and families, members of the YWCA and the local media about some really shocking information about health disparities in our community.

About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries. Nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities, such as memory problems, learning disabilities and permanent loss of basic functioning (according to the CDC).

The drowning rate of African-Americans is significantly higher than that of whites, with the highest disparity among children 5 and 14 years old, whose risk of fatal drowning is three times that of white children in the same age range (CDC data from 2005-2009).

Our goal was clear — to be able to swim the English Channel and raise the money to launch the Swim for Change program — and despite significant weather delays and an aggressive fundraising goal, we were successful on both accounts. The power of being able to make a difference, in my own community, kept me going during those months of early-morning freezing cold lake trainings. I realize how fortunate I am to be comfortable and confident in and around the water, while so many children in our community lack the basic lifesaving skill of swimming.

Since our English Channel crossing, the YWCA has done a remarkable job making good on its promise to teach more children how to swim. In five years, Swim for Change has reached more than 1,500 children and youth through multiweek swim lessons at the YWCA. Research shows that participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children. Children from all backgrounds are now skilled and confident in the water and know how to follow water safety rules. I am so proud of what our group of swimmers have accomplished — and it’s all possible because of support and donations from people in the community.

I am lucky to be in the position to once again be asking for your support for this amazing, and life-changing program. It’s clear that the need still exists, and Swim for Change still needs the financial support of the community today, just as it did when I was taking the last stroke to reach France and complete our English Channel swim.

Help us continue our work by making a donation today and designating “Swim For Change.”