Six hundred children and adults will get free swimming lessons and classroom instruction in water safety this spring thanks to a pilot program sponsored by BREC, the YMCA and the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.

In 2014, the sports governing body USA Swimming released statistics indicating that 69 percent of African-American children have little or no swimming ability.

That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that African-Americans drown at a rate 20 percent higher than whites.

According to both studies, parental fear and lack of parental encouragement were the top two reasons children and parents gave for not swimming regardless of ethnicity, a news release said.

Studies like those and recent drownings in East Baton Rouge Parish spurred BREC, the YMCA and the East Baton Rouge school system to work together to launch a pilot water safety program in EBR schools this spring.

The program will be more comprehensive than summer swimming lessons and will include classroom and pool-based instruction. It also will be aimed at adults and children.

“Since joining BREC, I have spent a lot of time at Liberty Lagoon Water Park and our swimming pools, and it concerns me to see the large number of children who rely on a life jacket when they are in the pool,” BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said. “Each summer we work with the YMCA to enroll as many children as possible into our Learn to Swim programs, but this year, we want to begin a more in-depth program which will help both adults and children become comfortable in the water.”

“The Y encourages all children and adults to learn how to swim. It’s never too late. Basic swimming skills and water safety practices save lives every day,” YMCA of the Capital Area President/CEO Bob Jacobs said.

“It is exciting when organizations can collaborate and create partnerships that help meet our community’s needs to ensure all families have the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive.”

The program will target 600 children and adults this spring. All participants will be recommended by the EBR school system, and the classroom-based portion of the program will be held in schools.

Sessions will run 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the age and ability of participants. Transportation will be provided for the swim lesson portion of the program, and both BREC and YMCA pools will be used.

“The ability to swim should be considered an essential life skill for everyone, considering that we live on a planet that is composed of approximately three-fifths water,” school superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor Jr. said.

“This partnership will go a long way in making the ability to swim a reality for our students, as well as saving lives and providing a safe recreational activity for them to enjoy the numerous natural bodies of water contained within our state.”

The program came about through the assistance of a community leader who serves on the East Baton Rouge School Board as well as the BREC Commission.

“As a new commissioner with BREC, I am so pleased to be a part of this collaboration that will help save children’s lives and enhance the health of families in our parish,” Evelyn Ware-Jackson said. “I would like to see this pilot grow to a point that we have competitive swim teams across the district, allowing our kids yet another opportunity to strive towards excellence.”

The pilot program will be free of charge and funded through a $25,000 grant the YMCA of the Capital Area secured through the YMCA of the USA, as well as $25,000 from BREC. Once the pilot program is complete, BREC and the YMCA will work to expand the program into school systems across the parish.

“We want to ensure that children across the parish are able to enjoy the beautiful lakes, rivers and swimming facilities in East Baton Rouge without fear,” McKnight said.

“Our hope is that no other family will have to suffer a tragedy that could have been prevented by a program like this one.”

In addition to the Water Safety Program, BREC and the YMCA will continue offering Learn to Swim lessons at a very affordable rate for anyone who wants to register. In 2014, 1,143 children completed those lessons.