Last month, the USA Swimming Foundation awarded $436,515 in grants to 78 learn-to-swim programs across the country, including one in the Elm City.

The New Haven nonprofit Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership — an organization dedicated to literacy-based and extracurricular programming for youth in low-income neighborhoods — was awarded $2,500 through the foundation’s Make a Splash Initiative. LEAP will use the grant to provide free swim lessons to participants. The nonprofit also channels its swim offerings toward a larger mission: mitigating the disproportionate risk of drowning that children of color face.

“The Make a Splash [grant] gives us the opportunity to provide mentorship to the participants and to have supplies,” said Elvert Eden, director of youth development and aquatics at LEAP. “Kids may not have bathing suits and goggles and towels, so we provide them all with those necessities through the grant, and the Make a Splash grant gives us a sustainable funding source.”

Every year, LEAP provides about 400 students with swim instruction at its community center, which serves mostly black and Latino youth. Through the aquatic programming, students learn basic water safety skills — including how to tread water and float. As part of the organization’s “resource-based curriculum,” all participants get some exposure to swim instruction at the end of their time with LEAP. This summer, Eden anticipates 350 children will enroll in swim lessons at the center.

Malay Martinez, a nine-year-old student who has been swimming at LEAP for seven months, said swimming is “super fun” for her. Martinez has been working on holding her breath underwater and said she can already “get rings from the bottom of the pool.”

Beyond serving youth participants, the organization extends its swim lessons to the New Haven community at large, offering reduced-cost options to adults. This is one way in which LEAP intends to address the generational lack of swimming opportunities that exists in communities of color, according to Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17, a grant writer for LEAP.

Zachariah also said that because of segregated and racist housing practices, low-income areas often have pools that are unsafe — another reason for the heightened risk of drowning among people of color.

“The bottom line is that many children of color don’t have access to pools, don’t have the money to pay for these kinds of programs. They learn at LEAP to swim for free,” Eden said. “Unlike their white counterparts, they are [more] likely to drown.”

The organization also emphasizes hiring swim instructors and lifeguards who are people of color. Ninety percent of the staff supporting swim programming at LEAP — who are high school and college students — were LEAP students themselves, and nearly half learned to swim at LEAP.

“For us, it is a big deal to have swim instructors and lifeguards who look like the youth that they are serving, because the children feel more comfortable that they are seeing [people of color] swimming with them and … showing them that that kind of knowledge is possible in their community, and that doing these actions is possible for them in their own body,” Zachariah said.

Aquatic programming at LEAP was restored in 2014, after it was discontinued five years earlier because of a funding shortage. In part due to state budget cuts, the organization could not afford to staff or maintain its community center pool. State budget cuts have continued to affect the organization, which was forced to shut down one of its five school-based locations this academic year due to financial constraints.

To remedy the lack of government funding, which has historically accounted for much of LEAP’s resources, the organization is increasingly relying upon grant money. Individual donations are also a major source of funding for LEAP.

“It’s both a negative and a positive in that we need to … find more funding outside of our individual donors and the government,” Zachariah said. “But there are more organizations that seem willing to support after-school programs that specifically are working towards alleviating issues of poverty, classism and racism.”

The USA Swimming Foundation has partnered with LEAP’s since 2016, providing materials and support for the organization’s aquatic programs. The Make a Splash Initiative is projected to affect 16,000 children through the 2018 grants, especially in underprivileged communities. According to a press release from the Make a Splash website, the foundation has awarded $5 million to swim lesson programs since 2007.

The LEAP community center is located at 31 Jefferson St.

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu