A youthful swimmer gives the program a big thumbs-up. Photo from YWCA Evanston-North Shore

Evanston Swims!, a community collaboration that gives second-graders access to free swimming lessons, was conceived in 2011 as part of a visioning project to mark the 150th anniversary of Evanston. The idea was bold but simple: give all Evanston children access to swim lessons so they could be safe around water.

 Just one year later, the goal took shape as a pilot program centered on water safety. The pilot worked, and, in the fall of 2013, the program was officially launched. This year marks its five-year birthday.

“By the end of this school year, we will have reached almost 1,500 kids since the program’s inception,” said Mary Miller, who coordinates Evanston Swims! as a part-time staffer at YWCA Evanston/North Shore. “This is particularly important since we live in a lakeside community.”

Through Evanston Swims!, second-graders in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 receive swim lessons when they have half days throughout the school year. They either bring a sack lunch or receive a lunch at school and then are bused to their swimming site.

“If they don’t have swim gear, like a swimsuit or goggles, we provide that,” said Ms. Miller. “We make sure there are no barriers to these kids getting in the water.”

A Community Collaboration

Ms. Miller likened Evanston Swims! to a barn raising – something that only happens because so many people pitch in. The program is a partnership among YWCA Evanston/North Shore, McGaw YMCA, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and includes a host of other partners. In addition to YWCA Evanston/North Shore and McGaw YMCA, Three Crowns Park and Presbyterian Homes offer their pools. The Great Lake Plunge open-water swim raises funds for the program. And chaperones and instructors come from all corners of Evanston and include parents, Masters swimmers, and District 65 middle-schoolers, among others.

Henry Clay-Barbour, a Chute Middle School eighth-grader, is in his third year of serving as a volunteer swim instructor with the program.

“I don’t have much else to do on half days, so why not do this? I love the kids and get to see them have positive experiences. I want to do it as long as I can, because it’s really rewarding,” he said.

Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director of the Evanston History Center, was on the Evanston 150 planning committee and has been volunteering with Evanston Swims! since its inception.

“In all the years we’ve been doing this, I think I’ve only missed coming twice,” she said. “This program spoke to me because all through high school and college, I made my money by lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons. It felt like a natural fit. And my daughter and I volunteered together, which was great.” 

She added, “It’s exciting to see these children progress. There was a year I had a girl who wouldn’t put her toe in at the beginning, but by the end she could get in, blow bubbles and swim a little. I used to think you couldn’t make a difference so quickly, but you can.”

Centered on Public Health and Safety

Making a difference to improve the health and safety of children in Evanston is what the program is all about.

“Even though we think of swimming as recreation, learning to swim is a public health and safety issue,” said Ms. Miller. “It’s wonderful that so many people get this and want to be part of the program. Evanston Swims! goes beyond teaching kids to swim. We’re offering a venue for people to serve. All of the people who are part of Evanston Swims! are making an impact for the next generation of Evanstonians and for generations to come.”

The next session of Evanston Swims! will be held May 2. Interested individuals can learn more or make a donation at ywca.org/evanstonswims or by emailing evanstonswims@gmail.com.