One little girl wouldn’t let go of LEAP lifeguard Shanahia Fernandez’s neck, but she made it into the pool. Another little girl had to be coaxed to just put her feet in the water.
That was their swim class for the day.
Fernandez understood their fear. Once upon a time she too was a little kid at LEAP, the after-school and summer academics and athletics youth program based on Jefferson Street. She learned to swim through LEAP’s program when she was about 8. When she got her lifeguard certification about four years ago, she said, she jumped at the chance to come back and work at the agency.
“I thought, “Oh my God, I have to do this here,’” the 22-year-old said. “Lifeguarding wise, I like being able to know what to do in a situation. I’m one of those people who freezes up.”
With the water skills, CPR training, and first-aid training that she has received as a lifeguard ,she can shake off her tendency to freeze, and just act.
LEAP is making sure that as many of the kids through its doors — some 1,200 a year— learn to be swimmers. It also is making sure that those who advance from swimmer to swim instructor get lifeguard certifications.
Elvert Eden, LEAP’s youth development and aquatics director, said that LEAP pays the $350 cost for the training for students, who are already working as swim instructors, to get certified to become lifeguards.
“It’s an investment,” he said. “Without them, who’s going to teach the kids?”
Eden said LEAP reopened its pool in 2014 with a goal of teaching every child who comes through the doors how to swim. Of those 1,200 children who come each year, 92 percent are either black or Hispanic, and 65 percent of them don’t know how to swim. LEAP wanted to make sure that the kids had a basic skill that would help them avoid a preventable death from drowning.
Having swimmers who’ve come through the ranks of LEAP as students to become employees fits into the multi-tier mentoring model that the organization has used successfully for 25 years. Children of color being taught by older children of color creates a natural rapport. The little kids learn to swim, the older kids learn how to teach, and they all have a positive influence on each other. The swim instructors get an extra challenge too: They also teach the adult swim classes that LEAP offers in the evenings.
The students who take on the lifeguard training gain another employable skill. They get hired at LEAP. The certification also opens the door to be hired at camps, pools, and parks that might need their services.
A team of 10 students was slated to finish up their lifeguard certification and recertification on Friday. Seventeen-year-old Raysa Perez, a current swim instructor, is one of the 10 who made it through.
“I like it a lot,” she said of the training. “It’s really interesting learning new things about helping someone in the water. Because, sometimes when you’re teaching someone, you might be a little concerned like, ‘What if they do submerge or something like that?”
Now that she’s going to be a lifeguard, she said she feels more confident that she has one more tool to help prevent drowning.
“I just think it would make more sense to be a swim instructor and a lifeguard in one,” she said. “And it just seems like a fun job.”
Sincere Peters, 18, can confirm that it’s a fun job. He was on duty during a recent swim class. He said he really wanted to be a lifeguard because he loves helping people. He and his older brother, Nasir, grew up swimming and teaching their little cousins how to swim. His older brother started coming to LEAP and he followed suit. Now, they both work for the organization.
“I just always felt good doing that and watching them grow and progress,” he said. “Lifeguarding is just something that I found was really important because you just never know sometimes when there will be a situation. If you have the skills you can help.
“It feels good to help especially if your help works,” he added. “I love it. The kids always uplift me because when they bring the energy I gotta come back with more energy. But I love it. It’s great.”
The new swim classes session at LEAP starts April 23. For more information click here.