Swim For Success: Kalamazoo College’s Program to Decrease Child Drowning Rates

Photo Courtesy: Kalamazoo College Athletics

By Grant Anger, College Swimming World Intern.

Kalamazoo College is a private, liberal arts college located in the small city of Kalamazoo in West Michigan. Service-learning is at the heart of K College’s education, integrating the learning experience with meeting community needs. A few years ago, the Kalamazoo College swim team began a program called Swim For Success (SFS) to help give back to the community and teach water safety skills to those who may not have access to pools.


Photo Courtesy: Swim For Success

The city’s residents are mostly people of color, and the citizens statistically have higher poverty rates than the state average. According to USA swimming, 70% of African-American children, 60% for Hispanic children, and 42% for white children cannot swim. Drowning is one of the biggest causes of death for this age of children. The Kalamazoo College swim team decided to take action and lower these rates, as learning this skill can be a matter of life or death.

Swim for Success is funded by private donations from families in the Kalamazoo Area and is free for any family on free and reduced lunch; the majority of the families are Hispanic or African-American. The kids come three days a week to receive an hour of tutoring from K College students and an hour of swim lessons taught by the swim team.

Swimming World sat down with one of the student directors of this program, Gus Guthrie, to learn more.


Photo Courtesy: Swim for Success

Swimming World: How was Swim for Success started, and what was the original plan?

Guthrie: To my understanding, SFS started as a program run by the Kalamazoo College swim team ever since they were offered funds. The original goal was to teach swimming in order to lower the rate of child deaths by drowning in Kalamazoo, specifically for people and families who otherwise would not be able to receive swim lessons.

SW: What is the goal for the average kid who attends SFS?

Guthrie: Generally, the goal is to become comfortable and confident in and around water. Once the kids learn the basics, we push them towards competitive swimming by teaching stroke techniques and having them do drills to increase speed and efficiency.

SW: How is SFS a great example of giving back to a community?

Guthrie: SFS is a fantastic learning and growing opportunity for both the kids and the coaches. Most of the coaches have been lucky enough in their upbringing to not only have learned how to swim but also to continue to do it competitively into college. They then share their knowledge and swimming experience with youth who are not in that same position.

SW: Why are programs like SFS important?

Guthrie: Without programs like SFS, there would always be accessibility gaps between people of different social, racial and sexual groups. The work of programs which break – or at least reduce – that gap is essential to the betterment of life for everyone.

SW: How can other teams/groups use SFS as a model for giving back to a community?

Guthrie: It would be easy for other athletic teams or school groups to use SFS as a model, and there are many similar opportunities at Kalamazoo College. In it’s most basic form, SFS is a mentorship program between college students and children in their community. More programs like this can only do good, since there is always a need for mentorship in many different ways.

SW: What is the most rewarding part of SFS?

Guthrie: For me personally, the most rewarding part is being able to learn about the families and their experiences. There is so much diversity and knowledge, and it is constantly changing from session to session.


Photo Courtesy: Swim for Success

SW: How have you seen coaches and swimmers grow after participating in SFS?

Guthrie: To start, the coaches have become far more interested and involved in the world around them – even outside of SFS. The ones who stay the longest are the ones who typically do the most growing during the process because their love for the work grows as they grow.

Besides physically growing, the kids become far more comfortable in the water as well as with themselves. Beyond that, they tend to be far more hopeful about their futures as they get to see and spend time with the coaches who are great role models both in ethics and action.

SW: What is your favorite part of SFS?

Guthrie: It is difficult to choose a favorite part, since the program as a whole is amazing; however, I have to say it’s watching the changes the kids go through over the years as they move from level to level. There is nothing that makes kids happier than achieving something great.

SW: What are the biggest challenges in running a program like SFS?

Guthrie: The thing I find most challenging is fulfilling the desires of each individual kid and their families. With 50 kids per session, it can be difficult to keep track of each of their individual goals. I know that it can be very difficult for a child when they feel unloved or forgotten in that respect.

SW: How would you like to see programs like SFS grow?

Guthrie: There is already such a large necessity for the program to grow in numbers of both kids and coaches. To be able to hold that big of a program would be amazing for everyone.

For more information about Swim For Success, contact Gus Guthrie at Garrett.Guthrie15@kzoo.edu

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.