30 Jan 2023

Greater Providence YMCA Swim Program


The look of fear on the little boy’s face was evident as he stood at the edge of the swimming pool at the East Side YMCA.

“He was shaking,” said Mike Rollins, executive director of the East Side YMCA. “He was beyond scared to get in the pool.”

This young boy had never been exposed to swim lessons or water safety.

The swimming disparities and the racial divide continues to sink.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African American children and 45% of Latino children possess poor swimming ability, compared to 40% of white children. This puts children of color at a greater risk of drowning.

Many factors contribute to this disparity, including the swimming ability of a child’s parents, which may affect the likelihood that a child will learn how to swim. Additionally, fear plays a role in whether children and families have adequate water safety skills, with a clear connection between fear of drowning and low swimming ability. Children who are afraid of drowning are 67% more likely to have no/low swimming ability, and African American children and parents are three times more fearful of drowning than white people.

“When speaking to parents about swimming, they may have little to no water knowledge, but one thing stands true; they want to keep their children safe in the water,” said Rollins.

“It is no secret that the fear of water is high in communities of color. Water safety, along with having the ability to swim, is not only extremely important, but therapeutic in so many ways. We are beyond grateful to POC for gifting this opportunity to our scholars,” said Joanne Deborah of YouthBuild Providence Prep Academy.

MJ Daly, executive director of the Mt. Hope Learning Center, agreed.

“The Papitto Opportunity Connection providing swim lessons for the students in our care has been a wonderful connection. Not only has it allowed the children to gain skills, confidence, and a new healthy habit, but it has provided a framework for Mt. Hope Learning Center and the East Side Y to renew a long-standing community partnership to serve neighborhood families,” said Daly. “Having the expanded opportunity to provide access and enrichment to our stakeholders is a shared goal of our organizations.  The smiles on the faces of the children at the end of each pool session speaks volumes to its impact.  Parents and guardians are very pleased with the ability to give their children an introduction to fitness, the Y, and a new community of learning.”


Rollins is taking the Y’s swim program to the next level.

Learning to swim and feeling safe and confident in the water is a priority, but Rollins is also using the swim program as a pathway to success for youth of color- in and out of the pool. He refers to the program he created using a baseball term – a Farm System.

After children learn to swim and advance through the Y’s club program, Rollins encourages them to take the test to become lifeguards.

He is using learning to swim as a pathway to employment.

“Now you have a job,” he said. “It’s not just about learning to become a good swimmer. This is a growth opportunity. We are instilling the ladder of success.”

Hamilton Watson-Scott, a young woman of color, is the Y’s aquatic coordinator. She learned to swim at the Y and is now giving back. She said it’s important that children are taught by someone who looks like them.

“You become a role model,” she said.

Watson-Scott had the pleasure of teaching many of the classes offered this past year and saw first-hand the amount of progress.

A few months after the petrified little boy braved the waters and took his first lesson, the look of fear was replaced by confidence.

“The kid cried on the steps of the pool and now he was swimming out in the middle of the pool to get a toy,” said Rollins. “This kid was terrified, and now he has adjusted to the water, laughing, smiling, and having fun. The Papitto Opportunity Connection funding is not just a check, it’s making a huge impact.”

Share your Story of Life

We all have a story. Your story and that of your community should be told by you, because it’s lived by you.