Like fish to water: YMCA of Greater Cleveland prioritizes water safety, swim lessons

Lay out your beach towels and apply your sunscreen, it’s summer in Northeast Ohio!

While summer heat pairs perfectly with heading to the beach or pool, it’s equally important to practice water safety, stress staff members at YMCA of Greater Cleveland branches offer swim classes for all ages and abilities, as well as water safety tips compiled by aquatics instructors.

“Water safety to me is being aware that while water sports and swimming are fun, you have to understand and respect the water; to have a healthy fear of it,” says Stephanie Elizondo, a member of the North Royalton Family YMCA, who, for a little more than a year, has brought her children to the Y for both group and private swimming lessons. “No matter how good of a swimmer you are, you never know if you’re going to get tired or stuck,”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are about 4,000 fatal drownings every year, equating to around eleven deaths per day. Children ages one to four years old have the highest chance of drowning, while in kids five to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death. The CDC recommends formal swimming lessons along with practicing water safety skills to reduce the risk of drowning.

Kids are required to sit on the edge while waiting for swim instructions.Kids are required to sit on the edge while waiting for swim instructions.“Water safety means giving everybody the tools to be safe and the number one thing to know to be safe around water is to learn how to swim,” says Chris Scheuer, executive and branch director of the Hillcrest Family YMCA in Lyndhurst. “If one person drowns, it’s too many. That’s why [our] curriculum is focused on water safety and self-rescue to prevent drowning rather than teaching how to swim.”

Scheuer has been the Hillcrest director for 12 years and started working for the Y through summer camps in the greater New York City area. He took an interest in aquatics at the camp, while serving as a lifeguard there and made his way up to his current position.

Scheuer and his staff teach five basic swimming lessons the Hillcrest Family Y, with three classes designed specifically around water safety.

“Water safety to me means giving everybody the tools to be safe—and the number one thing to know to be safe around water is to learn how to swim,” says Scheuer. “Safety around water gets woven into our swim water curriculum.”

He says the Y puts a strong emphasis on teaching children not only to swim, but also how to act around water.

“Kids should get into the water at an early age just to get the hang of it,” Scheuer explains. “We talk to them about what to expect before they’re in their suits and by the water. And we teach them to-take slow steps—putting a toe in the water, [then]splashing in the shallow end. Our lessons are [in] progression, and we take time to develop rapport with the participants.”

Lessons cost $3 per lesson ($4 for an adult with a child), and group sessions cost $8 a lesson. Each lesson lasts for a half hour, with participants needing eight lessons to graduate to the next level. Additionally, the Y offers financial aid.

“We want to try to make [learning to swim] as affordable as possible,” Scheuer says. “We provide financial assistance for people who can’t afford [lessons]—we don’t want the price to be a barrier. My biggest fear is [that] somebody drowns who wanted to learn how to swim.”

Lessons begin for children as young as six months. with parents participating to learn more about water safety, drowning prevention, and the importance of supervision when around water.

“From the beginning, the Y shows that they’re here to learn; they set the pace, tone, and expectation for how the children are to interact with the water,” says Y member Elizondo.  “Even from level two, it was [like] ‘this is how you get into the water; this is the correct way to get in and out even before [learning swimming] strokes.”

After Elizondo’s children took swimming lessons, one of them went on to join the swim team.  

More than a million kids take swim classes at a Y every year, says Scheuer, adding that even a few lessons can save lives in the water.

“There are too many drownings,” says Scheuer. “Everybody has the ability to save themselves if they want to work at it. The water is such an amazing thing to utilize for activities and everybody has the ability to swim – to get over their fear and to not panic. To use the water as an ally and not an enemy. There’s a lot of information out there and you can never be too safe.”

For more information or to sign up for lessons, join a swim team, or earn lifeguard certification,  contact the YMCA of Greater Cleveland to find a branch near you.

Helena Kalantzis is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. They chose to pursue journalism because of a lifelong passion for reading and writing. Kalantzis is a resident assistant for the LGBTQIA+ housing at OU, and loves knitting and crocheting—an activity that their partner-in-crime (my cat), Maxine, often tries to help with. Kalantzis appreciates, enjoys, and loves the arts immensely, having spent seven years in band, ten years in musical productions, and more than ten years in choir, and is an active member in the Picardy Thirds, an on-campus a capella group.