Everybody in the pool! Fairfax lifeguard promotes benefits of swimming

Fairfax Recreation Center
2335 East 82nd St., Cleveland; 216-664-4142

Interested in exposing your children to swimming at the Fairfax pool? Stop by the Family Fun Swim on Friday evenings at 5 p.m. And if you would like to donate new items such as goggles, Speedos, large swim caps (for natural hair), girls swimming suits, and paddle boards, they will be generously accepted and diligently used. Drop them off at the Fairfax Recreation Center between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. any weekday except Wednesday.

Inhaling a nostril-full of chlorinated air in the middle of winter seems like an exclusive activity reserved for those who can afford expensive gym memberships. However, if you live in the city of Cleveland, you need not worry about that. Nineteen indoor pools are available throughout the city; all that’s required for membership is filling out a one-page application at any one of the facilities.

And yet on Cleveland’s East Side, these community pools are underutilized. Why is community participation dwindling? What is keeping residents from using the pools?

<span class="content-image-text">When it is open, the pool at the Fairfax Recreation Center remains virtually empty.</span>When it is open, the pool at the Fairfax Recreation Center remains virtually empty.The Fairfax Recreation Center can provide insight. Built in 1957, it was named after the late swimmer and first black superintendent of parks and recreation in the city, Florence Fairfax Bundy.

Bundy believed that in order for children to succeed, they need access to recreational activities that support their development, according to historical research conducted by Case Western Reserve University.

Today, lifeguard April Kenny, the physical director at the Fairfax Recreation Center, is continuing Bundy’s mission and passion of supporting youth development through recreation, specifically swimming.

An afternoon visit to the recreation center will be met with the voices and energy of at least 50 children as they make their way across the street from St. Adalbert Catholic School.  The pool, however, tells a different story. When it is open, the pool remains virtually empty except for a handful of regular adult swimmers, in stark contrast with the commotion and activity found in the rest of the building.

The pool is sometimes chilly, due to an old heating system that often needs repair. However, it is somehow still a refuge for the few swimmers Kenny does receive. The pool area is decorated with posters from past competitions. Kenny’s personal favorite, with its now-broken frame, proudly hangs above her chair, displaying a motto she tries to instill in all of her youth swimmers. It reads, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they’ll never rule the water.” This powerful statement tells children that if they can make it in the pool, they can make it anywhere.  

Kenny, a 25-year employee with Cleveland’s Division of Recreation, recalls seeing 100 youth swimmers or more annually in her early years, but those numbers are significantly lower now.  

She wishes she could pass on her love of the water to more students. “I was swimming before I could walk,” she says with a smile. “I just want to be able to teach this necessary life skill to anyone who is willing to learn.” And she does exactly that, not only by providing the basics so that children are safe around large bodies of water, but also encouraging them to utilize their skill in a competitive and disciplined way, through the city’s swim team.

Last year was the first time in at least five years that Kenny had more than 10 consistent members on the swim team. She was even able to take 11 children to the district swim meet, a competition between all of the recreation departments in the city of Cleveland.

Start of the decline

Although Kenny has forged ahead in efforts to teach swimming in the Fairfax community, she also wonders what can be done about the underutilized facilities. “I noticed a dropoff in participation about 15 years ago,” she says, confirming sentiments held by several longtime parks and recreation employees.

What contributed to the dropoff? Kenny suggests several possibilities, such as urban decay and increased foreclosures. Fewer families in the area mean decreased participation in the recreation program, including the aquatic programs.

Ironically, when Kenny does receive swimmers, her challenges seem to increase. Providing adequate equipment is a problem in urban areas such as Fairfax. “It is difficult to teach children to swim with ripped shorts,” Kenny says, ticking off a list of simple equipment that her students need. Items such as goggles, Speedo shorts, large swim caps and paddle boards to help with teaching the butterfly stroke, to name a few.

Another challenge she can’t ignore is the frequent lack of food. “Many of them are just hungry. Swimming takes a lot out of you.” Kenny and other swim coaches have cooked entire meals during competitions so that missing a meal might not be a barrier to participation, she says.

As Kenny powers through preparing the pool alone, for the last practice before the district finals, the small voice of a young boy is heard begging to enter the pool from the locker room. “He comes every day, just to relax after a stressful day,” says Kenny, touching on a topic many swimmers understand. Scientific studies back up the use of aquatic therapy in patients of all ages, and this one is free. “Many children do not realize that they are using the pool to help with stress, but it does help,” Kenny says.

And when Kenny counts up all the advantages that accrue from being a swimmer, she makes sure to mention this one: Many of the swimmers have gone on to become certified lifeguards through the city’s recreation department. It’s an opportunity that provides urban youth with life skills and financial independence.

<span class="content-image-text">The pool is sometimes chilly, due to an old heating system that often needs repair, however, it is still a refuge for the few swimmers the center does receive.</span>The pool is sometimes chilly, due to an old heating system that often needs repair, however, it is still a refuge for the few swimmers the center does receive.Against the current

But even with all these benefits, swimming has undeniably become a hard sell for Kenny. That’s obvious as she strikes up a conversation at the recreation center with two young men, both former swim team members who took advantage of the program when they were young. One even went on to become a certified lifeguard. However, neither have time for the pool anymore, although they are still eligible to be on the swim team. They, like many others, decline Kenny’s polite requests to rejoin.

This is a trend among most of her high school swimmers. Reasons include the difficulty of the sport, lack of knowledge around hair care for swimmers, its lack of representation in the community, and even the potential ridicule for being seen in a Speedo. “I’d rather play basketball,” says Joseph, one of the two youths, when asked why he no longer swims.

While Kenny continues to battle with maintenance issues, a small staff and a large decline in participation, she faithfully endures to push the idea that swimming is a necessary skill, a mission that continues to prove to be important. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African American children are five to 10 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool when compared with white children; the chilling statistic adds layers to an already complicated environment.

Stalwartly, she stands guard over a program she knows can save lives and be a lifeline at the same time.

Provided that the facilities are consistently maintained, remain accessible and are supported by the community, all children may not be ready for the swim team, but with Kenny, they will definitely be prepared to handle themselves in the water.

Lauren Harrison is part of the Fairfax Correspondent program, designed to lift up residents’ voices by encouraging and developing neighborhood residents to become storytellers.