Seven-year-old Tylon Kent and other youngsters kicked and splashed in a cool, blue swimming pool one recent Friday, reciting water safety rules and learning about their faith.
Swim lessons have become a regular part of Christian education for Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church this summer, the Rev. Herman Kelly explained.
“God wants us to take care of our temple, mind and body,” said Kelly, standing beside the pool. “The temple is your body, and you should be safe around water.”
He watched nine of his members’ children learning to swim and gaining confidence in the water at the A.C. Lewis branch of the YMCA.
The lessons are part of the Y SPLASH program, which provides free lessons for some neighborhood children who may not be able to afford regular swim lessons.
Tylon has already learned one of the golden rules involved in safeguarding his body: “Don’t get into the pool without permission.”
Tylon nearly drowned several years ago after jumping into a pool unsupervised, explained his father, Terry Kent.
Kelly said he teamed up with the Y this summer in an effort to expose and encourage church members from ages 3 to 99 to take swim lessons.
“We’re trying to make a generational change,” Kelly said.
His efforts were met with enthusiasm from Tylon and other children who eagerly answered swim instructor Christian Kelly’s question about what to do in case someone is drowning: “What do we throw them?”
“A floater, so we can pull them back,” Tylon said.
Kelly said he wanted to encourage children and adults to enroll in a pool safety/swim lesson program following several swimming tragedies in Louisiana last year.
A 44-year-old mother, Sonja Anderson, and her 2-year-old son, Jonathan, both of Baton Rouge, drowned in May 2010 when the mother jumped into the family pool after her son fell into the water while riding a battery-powered tricycle.
Drownings in Shreveport in August claimed the lives of six non-swimmers who were wading in the Red River and later plunged into a drop-off 25 feet deep.
Such instances can be prevented, Kelly said, if he can reach out and help people learn to swim.
He said his church coordinator, Tracy Bradley, is also in charge of the swim ministry.
“God directed us to do this,” the pastor said. “We have to offer a ministry that teaches people to survive in the water. About 75 percent of our members can’t swim and I have 400 members.”
Kelly said he grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., where his father taught him and his sister to swim at an early age. He also attended Morehouse College on a swimming scholarship.
Kelly said part of his swim ministry includes addressing phobias and fears among some in the African-American community about water. He said he wants to encourage black families to learn to save themselves and to practice a safety plan during family outings.
“We live in an environment where there is water everywhere, from ponds to bayous and rivers,” he said.
He presents scenarios and “what if” situations during his water ministry discussions. “What happens if a 3-year-old falls into the water?” he asked. Families armed with water safety information would know how to extend a long branch or some sort of floatation device to the victim.
He said he recounts some of the details of the drowning tragedy in Shreveport to help his members understand the importance of learning to swim.
Relatives and friends had gathered on a sandy shore near the Red River’s bank to cool off and to hold a barbecue. Teens were wading in waist-high water when one of the teens, who was later rescued, stepped off a slippery ledge and began kicking and flailing. As other non-swimmers rushed to help, they succumbed to the river, drowning.
Kelly said the swim ministry is creating a domino effect among families at the church.
Kelly said his wife has enrolled in the class and other parents and grandparents have signed up to take classes offered this month for adults.
“When families gather for a cookout near water, someone should know how to swim,” Kelly said.
Terry Kent, who can swim, recalled how several yeas ago his son Tylon, then a toddler, either jumped or fell into an uncle’s pool where other children swimming.
“He fell straight to the bottom but someone was there to pull him out,” Terry Kent said.
The swim classes have given Terry Kent some peace of mind about his son. “If he were to fall into a pool again, he’d know how to save himself,” Terry Kent said.
Khary Carrell, who enrolled three of his nephews and a niece in the classes, said he wanted to expose them to swimming.
“Many times, inner city kids are exposed to basketball, football and other sports but this is a chance to expose them to swimming,” he said. “They are really taking to it. I can see the progress.”