During the past year, Emmanuel Solomon, a 13-year-old youth at Carl Bruce Middle School, drowned while swimming in the Parkwood Pool at a time it was not open. Local elected officials and community leaders are addressing the lack of youth swimming skills with a free “learn to swim” program that will start in February.
A number of groups have come together to work out a program, including the Unified Government, Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools and the YMCA. The program is funded by a grant from Warner Media.
The program will begin Wednesday, Feb. 9, at the Providence YMCA. Whittier and Hazel Grove elementary schools in Kansas City, Kansas, will participate in the first sessions. It will involve 200 students who attend the KidZone after-school program, according to Edwin Birch, a spokesman for the KCK Public Schools. He discussed the program at the Jan. 27 Unified Government Commission meeting, and also at a previous school board meeting.
After the first group goes through the swimming program, two more elementary schools will be added, he said.
Plans are to expand the program to other grade levels eventually, including middle school and high school, according to Birch.
They are starting with young people, so they can get the students engaged and not afraid to be around water, he said.
They hope to create a pipeline eventually for older teens to work as lifeguards with the UG Parks and Recreation Department, he said.
One of the campaign goals of Mayor Tyrone Garner was reopening Parkwood Pool, 9th and Quindaro, and working on the shortage of lifeguards available for Kansas City, Kansas.
Garry Linn, senior vice president of operations with the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, said he would not lose sight of the reason for the program, because of the tragedy that took place last summer. Individuals and organizations that care enough about the KCK community are making sure there is the proper response, that a program is put in place to make sure it never happens again, Linn said.
Linn said the goal was that every child in Kansas City, Kansas, regardless of background, would have access to a quality swim lesson.
After starting Feb. 9 with two schools, then two more schools will be added, he said.
It will be an ongoing program, with students participating for 12 lessons, he said. They are starting with two schools that have KidZone programs after school, and will have transportation from the schools to the YMCA for lessons. Eventually, they will include schools that do not have KidZone programs in the swimming lessons.
“It is no small feat to staff a program like this,” Linn said. The YMCA needs lifeguards and swimming instructors, and COVID-19 has been affecting programs in many ways, he said. They were about 85 percent complete on staffing for this program as of Jan. 27, he added.
Angel Obert, director of parks and recreation for the UG, said they have been talking about a program like this with UG commissioners since 2018.
“To be here today, talking about the pilot program and it is launching, is amazing,” she said.
Obert said in past years, the parks and recreation staff has gone to high schools to recruit lifeguards for the Parkwood Pool. They came back from recruitment with a list of 20 to 30 youth interested in being a lifeguard, she said.
“We knew the desire was there to fill the jobs,” she said. But the youth often didn’t show up at further meetings for those interested in being a lifeguard. They didn’t have the swimming skills necessary, she said.
Obert said they will build on the pilot program to provide more programs for the community. There may be more lifeguards as a result of the swimming program, who will have the opportunity to have summer jobs, she said.
The Parkwood pool has been closed for two years, partly from the risk of COVID and partly from the lack of lifeguards.
Obert said the parks and recreation department has been ramping up efforts on recruitment of lifeguards. Last year they ran a lifeguard study.
There were 75 applications distributed for lifeguard, and 10 were submitted to human resources, she said. There was a pretest at Parkwood pool, and seven candidates showed up, she said. The instructor said only three youth had the swimming skills necessary to go on to training. The UG sent the three to training, but only one out of the three attended, she said.
It is difficult to get qualified lifeguards, Obert said.
Now the UG has a flier that they are distributing to recruit lifeguards again, she said. Youth may apply for the jobs, and there are now some changes for UG lifeguard positions.
They will be paying lifeguards $15 an hour this summer, the highest hourly pay for lifeguards in the metro area, Obert said.
They also will offer incentives for lifeguards, she added. There will be a bonus of $100 for those who stay in the job, and at the end of the season there will be a $200 bonus, she said.
Commissioner Gayle Townsend said she appreciated the efforts of the YMCA, Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools and the UG staff on this program.
Linn said KidZone is working with children in kindergarten through fifth grade, and there will be a variety of kids of different ages in these first swimming lessons. They will be starting two times a week in a six-week program, then the next group will start, he said.
Eventually, all schools will be included, he said.
Commissioner Townsend said it was important for students to learn water safety, helping young students be more aware of the conditions, teaching respect for the pool and knowing what to do before they get in the water.
She called on everyone who was interested in the Parkwood pool situation last June to try to identify youth who may be interested in being lifeguards.
Commissioner Harold Johnson said he talked with lifeguards last year and their starting pay was around $11 an hour. The UG had been paying around $9 an hour previously. So, the UG now is very competitive with offering $15 an hour, he said.
“This has been an upward climb for several years,” Commissioner Townsend said. “But for COVID that is the rate ($15) lifeguards would have been paid (last year).”
In answer to a question from Commissioner Andrew Davis on whether there would be a residency requirement for lifeguard, UG Deputy Administrator Emerick Cross said there was no residency requirement since it was a seasonal position. Anyone from other communities may apply for the job. Lifeguards must be age 16 or older.
Commissioner Chuck Stites asked what the plans were for Bonner Springs and Edwardsville, and Linn said the YMCA already has a “learn to swim” program for the second grade in the Bonner Springs district at the Bonner YMCA. It has been in place for at least seven years, he said, and was paused last year because of COVID, but there are plans to continue it.
Linn said he expected to see some kids become talented swimmers, then move into being lifeguards.
Commissioner Christian Ramirez said he was excited about the “learn to swim” program. He complimented the efforts of parks and recreation staff.
He said he would do everything he could to get lifeguard applications out to the community.
Obert said in answer to a question from Commissioner Townsend that the parks department is still looking for a water safety instructor to facilitate conditioning. They are reaching out to contacts to see if someone is available to assist them, she added.
Mayor Garner said what resonated to him, during the events of last summer, was the community coming together and saying they wanted to have the pool open.
Moving forward, he said the commission, mayor and staff has heard the community.
“What you’ve seen tonight is a collaboration like something you’ve never seen,” he said, mentioning the UG, the school district, YMCA and private funding.
Instrumental in the WarnerMedia grant was Dennis Williams, senior vice president of corporate affairs and corporate social responsibility there, who was raised in Kansas City, Kansas.
Mayor Garner said this effort will need help from the community to step forward so children and adults can have a swimming pool.
The lifeguard application is online at the UG’s website at https://www.wycokck.org/Engage-With-Us/News-articles/Parkwood-Lifeguards-2022.