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Tucson nonprofit provides swimming lessons for Black youth

African American children more than 7 times more likely to drown
Posted at 6:27 PM, Jun 26, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Black children ages 10 to 15 are more than seven times more likely to drown in swimming pools than their white peers, according to the CDC.

Furthermore, a nationwide survey conducted at YMCAs revealed that 64% of Black children are unable to swim, compared to 40% of white children.

Despite this, 83% of these non-swimming youth plan to visit a pool or beach during the summer, highlighting the potential danger.

In response, one Tucson nonprofit is taking action to mitigate this alarming statistic by providing accessible swim lessons for the community.

Kimberlee Avant, co-founder of the African American Museum of Southern Arizona (AAMSAZ), has a personal connection to the cause.

"I was 19 and we found my niece facedown in a pool of water,” she said. “We were able to revive her, and it made me think about how many other children could be gone in moments or seconds."

Following this terrifying experience, Avant sought out more information, discovering that Black children had higher rates of drowning, especially in the Southwest, where pools are more common due to the hot weather.

She looked further into the causes of this racial disparity.

"In some of the studies, it was about Black children not having the financial aspects to get near a body of water,” Avant said. “Swimming pools, community pools, they usually have some type fee. But also in the backyards. How many of the children have pools in their backyards where they can be comfortable and learn how to swim on their own?"

Historical factors also play a role, including past discrimination through redlining and restricted access to community pools.

Avant took the research to her mother, Beverely Elliot, also a co-founder at AAMSAZ and serves on the Board of Directors.

“One of the things that we know, historically African American people were not allowed to swim,” Elliot said. “When we saw the statistics that are staggering, Kimberlee came to me and said ‘Mom, we got to do something about this.”

Beverely began searching for grants, eventually securing $5,000 from OneAZ Community Foundation.

The grant allowed AAMSAZ to provide free swim lessons at the University of Arizona's Student Rec Center. Additionally, the grant pays for water accessories, such as bathing suits, towels, flip-flops and goggles.

Daniel Hepfer, Aquatics Assistant Director at the UA Student Rec Center, helps run the program and says that it fills an important need for the Black community.

“Whether it’s cost or transportation, we know that there are some groups that can’t find a way to access a pool and therefore have no way to take swim lessons or practice their skills,” Hepfer said. "It’s been overwhelmingly positive from what I’ve heard from people taking the program."

One of the program's beneficiaries, 13-year-old Julian Gastelum, had never considered swimming before this opportunity.

"My mom just told me about these swimming lessons that were going on, and I was like, ‘I’ll try it out.’” Gastelum said. “Then I started actually trying it out and it was pretty fun."

After a year of lessons, Julian feels more confident and is even considering joining a swim team.

The swim lessons are available for children ages 3 to 17, with parents required to accompany 3-year-olds.

Classes are held every weekday from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. More information and registration can be found on the UA Campus Recreation website.

Joel Foster is a multimedia journalist at KGUN 9 who previously worked as an English teacher in both Boston and the Tucson area. Joel has experience working with web, print and video in the tech, finance, nonprofit and the public sectors. In his off-time, you might catch Joel taking part in Tucson's local comedy scene. Share your story ideas with Joel at, or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram or X.