DURHAM, N.C. – When Duke swimmers and divers gather in Taishoff Aquatic Pavilion to teach area children how to swim, they hope the skills they impart will not only help grow the sport; they hope it will also save lives.
Established by former Blue Devil diver Lauren Gonzalez, the Swimming with the Blue Devils initiative has widely expanded its reach since the first clinic was held in the fall of 2007. It has grown to serve dozens of children in the Durham community each year with participants ranging in age from infants to adolescents.
While taking a class at Duke that tackled the issue of social injustices, Gonzalez recognized the correlation between minority or inner-city populations with limited access to water and a high number of drowning incidents. Through further research, she learned that children who grow up in those households are often indoctrinated into a culture that associates swimming pools and water with fear.
“As a safety mechanism, parents will say, ‘Don’t go by the water, don’t go by the pool,’ to their children,” says Duke senior Eneka Lamb, who has headed up the program the last two years. “That reinforces a fear and lack of knowledge and skill.”
Knowing how privileged she was to compete in the sport at the collegiate level, Gonzalez set out to find a way she and her teammates could share their knowledge with those in the Durham community. With the assistance of Leslie Barnes, Assistant Director of Athletics for Student-Athlete Development, and
Sam Miglarese, Director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, she recruited students from Durham elementary schools to participate.
Following Gonzalez’s graduation in 2009, diver Jessica Lyden took over organizational responsibilities for the program. Lamb then followed in the former Blue Devils’ footsteps, hosting the free clinic three times a semester with help from her Duke swimming and diving teammates and other experienced volunteers. She has added new elements to the program, including an instructional manual for volunteers and a survey all parents must fill out about their child’s initial level of comfort in the water. Participants are then divided up by skill level and paired with members of the varsity program who help them learn to put their heads under water, float and eventually swim on their own.
“We are really attentive to the fact that many kids are terrified at first,” Lamb says. “We have to be really comforting and take the time to develop the relationship, even though it’s only an hour class. We do a lot of repetition – jump off the wall holding their hand and then do that again. It’s a lot of confidence-building.”
Junior Tyler Toren, who helps Lamb recruit varsity swimmers and divers to volunteer for the clinics, has also worked to spread word throughout the Durham area about Swimming with the Blue Devils. One organization he works with is Bull City Fit, a community-based wellness program that is part of the Duke Children’s Healthy Lifestyles program.
“I’m proud to be a Duke swimmer and it’s rewarding when parents and kids come up to you and say, ‘Thank you so much. We’re going to come to your swim meet and watch you swim,’” Toren says. “It’s really cool to see that you can help someone to the point where they’re confident enough to join a swim team.”
Swimming with the Blue Devils has continued to grow to serve more and more participants each semester. The program was also recently recognized by the ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for its contributions to the Durham community.
The popularity of the program has even grown to the point where Lamb has difficulty finding enough volunteers to match with clinic participants. Though she will be graduating in May, she hopes to recruit a teammate who will take over leadership responsibilities and continue to inspire others to volunteer their time and skills for the cause.
“All the kids love to see the swimmers and the parents feel comfortable that we’re there with them,” Toren says. “Every session, there’s always one or two parents that thank me or say, ‘I can’t swim. I’m so grateful that you’re teaching my child how to swim.’”
For Lamb, Toren and their fellow volunteers, the most rewarding aspect is to be a part of the children’s development, knowing that they are imparting a skill that could potentially save lives.
“I think it’s really rewarding when you reflect on it, but that’s not what motivates me to do it,” Lamb, who came to Duke from Hong Kong, says. “I lived on an island so I was always around water, always around pools. I took that for granted – my comfort in the water and being on the swim team my whole life. I feel like I’m obligated to offer that to somebody that wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. It’s basic safety.”