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DEEP Launches Free Swimming Lesson Program in Partnership with Connecticut YMCAs

Qualifying children to benefit from federal funds at 14 YMCA locations, program part of DEEP initiative to make outdoor recreation more accessible and inclusive to residents in 2023

(WATERBURY, CT) – Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (“DEEP”) Commissioner Katie Dykes joined U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (CT-05), local and state elected officials, and YMCA leaders today to announce $1.5 million to fund free swimming lessons to qualifying children. The partnership with the YMCA will enable 14 participating YMCA pools in the state to offer lessons over the next three years.

The program, funded through federal American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) funds authorized by the Lamont Administration and State Legislature, is expected to serve 3,000 children each year. Children 17 or under, living in Qualified Census Tracts and/or receiving SNAP benefits, or recommended to the program, are eligible to register for the free swimming lessons at participating YMCAs. These lessons are one of numerous DEEP initiatives aimed at increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in outdoor recreation activities in State Parks and Forests.

“Each year too many children’s lives are claimed from drowning,” Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz said. “The Connecticut YMCA Free Swim Lessons Program will not only save lives, but also provide children with a fun recreational activity that will create a lifelong skill.”

“DEEP is committed to making outdoor recreation more inclusive and accessible, and we are thrilled to announce this amazing partnership with the YMCA, offering free swimming lessons to children in Connecticut,” said DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes. “Swimming is such an essential element to many great outdoor experiences. To offer this opportunity to kids statewide will introduce many of them to life-saving skills and is one step we can take to help prevent tragedy on the water. Drowning poses a particular threat to children in underserved communities, so we’re excited for kids to take advantage of this important program ahead of the traditional outdoor recreation season.”

“This grant from DEEP will allow over 2,500 children who may not have access to swim lessons to be able to participate and learn the importance of swimming and being safe around water,” said Jim O’Rourke, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Waterbury YMCA.

“Last session, when I was serving as co-chair of the Children’s Committee, we looked at causes of death for children in our state; I was saddened to learn drowning is a significant cause of death for young people, and it impacts children in inner cities, including Black and Hispanic children, more than the general population,” said State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. “It also impacts individuals in low-opportunity parts of our state more than the general population. At that time, we worked collaboratively to identify the best possible ways to prevent this, and educational opportunities for young children in our state were among them. It’s heartwarming to see that our state is following through on that.”

"As co-chair of the Committee on Children, and member of the Children's Water Safety Task Force, I am very grateful to the Commissioner and the Governor and Lt. Governor for recognizing the importance of water safety, and especially the need for lessons in low-income communities and communities of color,” said State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “Swim lessons save children's lives, and cost and access should never be barriers to safety. I can think of no greater partners for this initiative than the YMCAs, and I thank them as well, for working with me since 2018 to help reduce barriers to access and save lives."

Connecticut is fortunate to have access to local pools, Long Island Sound, and many local lakes and ponds. However, access to swimming lessons is limited. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), more children ages 1-4 die from drowning in the United States than any other cause of death, and two children die every day from drowning. For children 5-14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury or death.

Drowning death rates for Black people are 1.5 times higher than the rates for White people. Disparities are highest among Black children ages 5-9 (rates 2.6 times higher) and ages 10-14 (rates 3.6 times higher). In underserved communities, 79% of children who live in households with incomes less than $50,000 have no/low swimming ability. 

This Free Swim Lessons program is part of DEEP’s DEI in Parks Initiative for 2023, which focuses on improving access and inclusion in Connecticut’s State Parks and Forests. Additional DEI-related projects DEEP is pursuing as part of this initiative include:

  • Creating partnerships to provide internships in Connecticut State Parks, recognizing that in a study of Black employees in the National Park Service, 14 out of 15 interviewees mentioned an internship as their first introduction to State and National parks in general.
  • Improving our seasonal staff recruitment processes by:
    • Launching recruiting efforts months earlier than we have in the past;
    • Raising the seasonal salary pay range to $15-19/hour; and
    • Reaching out to DEI programs on college campuses to help promote seasonal job opportunities for 2023
  • Making DEI a priority in DEEP’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), the 5-year strategic plan for the state’s outdoor recreation resources and programs, by issuing surveys and collecting data to identify additional opportunities where DEEP can further invest in DEI-related improvements.
  • Providing additional youth group camping sites to provide children with opportunities for a positive outdoor experience.

List of YMCA locations participating in the Free Swim Lessons program:

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