September 30, 2023


Minneapolis (May 10, 2010) – Nearly three years ago, in 2007, 15 swimmers based out of the YWCA of Minneapolis challenged themselves to a chilly 22-mile relay swim across the English Channel.

Upon completion, they kicked off what is formally known as “Swim for Change,” a program designed to provide opportunities for children of color to learn to swim, thus knocking down the wide disparity in Minnesota drowning deaths between Caucasian children and underrepresented children and youth.  People of color in Hennepin County are twice as likely to drown as white people.

One such success story that grew from the 2007 YWCA Channel Challenge is the story of Steven Xiong. Steven started swimming at the age of seven, and stresses the importance of water acclimation at a young age. He was part of the first Swim for Change-funded lifeguard class, with encouragement from Midtown General Manger Kee Vang.

“Every summer, the Asian Youth Program holds an overnight camping trip.  Kee was there, and he thought the lessons would be a great opportunity for me to get trained so that I could eventually get a job lifeguarding,” says Steven.

He credits the Swim for Change campaign for allowing him to dive into a job he loves.  Steven has become a strong role model within the Asian Youth Program, and he serves a volunteer each year to help with swim instruction for the young group.

Today’s focus toward the campaign remains strong, as countless lives have been impacted throughout the YWCA community through “Swim for Change.” Funds generated through major donor Medtronic – as well as private and anonymous gifts – have given the campaign life beyond the Channel swim.

Proceeds from the YWCA indoor triathlons have been designated to go to Swim for Change, and a donation button has been added to the main registration website. Literature is also placed in triathlon race packets, giving participants an opportunity to donate to the campaign before race day.

The YWCA of Minneapolis has partnered most directly with the department of Early Childhood Education. Funding through Swim for Change has provided children as young as preschool age the opportunity to become acclimated to the water and gain instruction from certified lifeguards and water safety instructors during their time spent at the childcare facility.

Once a week, children from the Early Childhood Education program take a single-file walk from dry land to the pool deck, where lifeguards and instructors work through swimming basics, such as head submersion and breathing techniques. Recently, two children graduated from the leisure pool to the deeper lap pool.

One of those graduates was five years old when she started acclimating to the water. According to lifeguard Whitney Jelmeland, the young swimmer was terrified of even getting her face wet.

“She hated the water two years ago,” said Jelmeland. “She was a clinger who refused most exercises we suggested.”

Whitney and the other instructors eventually fostered the girl’s confidence in the water on exercises that built up trust.

“We would catch her when she jumped from the side of the pool, and each time, we would allow her to dunk a little further into the water, until eventually, she was submerging her head,” Jelmeland said. “She started floating with help from instructors, then on her own.”

What each lifeguard learned from the girl is that ability is only a small part of swimming.

“It’s mostly about confidence,” she added.

Today, she can swim across the large lap pool without help.  Her favorite activities are jumping from the pool’s edge, having “hold your breath” contests, and being allowed to act as the teacher, which gives her the chance to choose exercises that she is most comfortable with.

Widespread participation in the Swim for Change campaign has also extended into the Strong Fast Fit Latino Youth program, headed by Luis Ramirez. Linking the Latino community in Minneapolis and fully-funded swim lessons for youth has been an important piece of the project puzzle.

Each Friday afternoon, Luis and his group venture into the aquatics area for swim instruction.  Since participating in the program, four youth have moved onto the Otters swim team, some have participated in YWCA-sponsored triathlons, and most have taken up swimming for recreational and exercise purposes.

“It gives the parents of these kids peace of mind, knowing that they are learning how to stay safe in and around the water,” Ramirez said. “Some of the families could have never afforded swimming lessons for their children, so Swim for Change has changed the way these families now get to spend time together.

“It’s important for our youth to start swimming, as this experience can lead to future job opportunities like lifeguarding or swimming instructor,” he added. “They can earn money for college, or even go to college on scholarship.”

Swim for Change has reached across to the YWCA Girls and Youth program as well, giving teenagers and pre-teens the opportunity to get in the pool with a lifeguard for swim instruction.

Joey Pope, 15, considers herself a role model for her family and friends, thanks in part to her access to swim lessons through the campaign. Joey participated in Camp Kickin’ It through her involvement with Contact Plus, a YWCA sexuality education program aimed at teenage boys and girls in a classroom and small group setting.  He has been most impacted by the challenge of helping her family become comfortable around water.

“My family is not very comfortable swimming, but now that they see how comfortable I am in the water, they are becoming more curious about getting in the pool.  My younger cousin Talani even wants to learn to swim like me,” said Pope. “I feel like they look up to me because I can swim.”

She also appreciated the one-on-one lessons she received from the lifeguards.

Swim for Change has already made an enormous impact in the lives of many children lacking confidence and basic knowledge of how to swim.  The program, with the help of YWCA lifeguards and instructors who are passionate about the safety of young swimmers of all backgrounds, has given opportunity to underprivileged youth to better their ability to stay safe in the water.

Such practice and instruction is invaluable.

Sarah Abbott is a Public Relations Intern for the YWCA of Minneapolis.