As we prepare to send our kids back to school with added measures to mitigate the spread of COVID, we are also reminded of their safety in water. The recent flooding event in Tennessee where many lost their lives in flood waters is an example of the increased risk of drowning. According to a recent report by BBC News, climate change and warmer winters are linked to increased drowning, especially among the young.
This month we feature a nonprofit that teaches kids and adults how to swim and about water safety.
Special thanks to our "Sponsor of the Month" for their continued support to our philanthropic services and to our "Nonprofit of the Month" for sharing their story.
By Pat Craddick
Founder / Executive Director
Shawn Slevin is the founder and Executive Director of Swim Strong Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to save and change lives through water safety education and teaching swimming skills. The organization provides affordable swim programs to stop the drowning and guides students from age three through adult towards a healthy lifestyle via exercise, proper nutrition, and competitive sports.
Pop Social Enterprise: What inspired you to start this nonprofit?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): The genesis of Swim Strong Foundation came from my volunteer work of 40 years as the head of a competitive age group swim team in NYC. In that program we not only taught our children to become the best competitive swimmers they could be, but the best individuals they could be. Lessons that transcended the pool and played out in the classroom; the boardroom and as they were starting to raise families of their own. These lessons taught goal setting, persistence, teamwork, focus, organizational skills and perhaps most importantly, resiliency. Our program continually delivered 1st place results and many of those 8,000 swimmers went on to swim for their high schools, USA swimming teams, became lifeguards and swam for their college teams. Hearing from several of the alumnus over the years as to how those lessons played out positively in their lives gave me the inspiration to start Swim Strong Foundation.
Pop Social Enterprise: When did you start this program and what is your teaching methodology?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): 15 years ago the program started with me doing what I knew best, helping youngsters become better competitive swimmers and helping children gain access to that arena, by building technically strong stroke mechanics and swim skills. I was particularly interested in doing this in underserved areas where families did not have affordable access to this type of programming. It was during this time that people began to ask me about a learn to swim program because so many people did not know how to swim.
Pop Social Enterprise: What did you learn about death due to drowning?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): When I did some research, I was devastated to see that a death due to drowning occurred every 70 seconds and for each death, 5 life altering water based accidents causing brain and spinal cord damage occurred, making this actually a global pandemic happening for decades. That prompted the start of the learn to swim program. In the beginning years we were child focused. But over time in speaking with the parents of our students, I came to understand most of them had no swimming skills themselves. Doing some more research, lead me to understand lack of swimming skills tended to be generational. We had to break this cycle and so started our adult programs. We now serve ages 3 through seniors.
Pop Social Enterprise: What were the most requests received for your program?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): Over those next two years I started to get a lot of requests from parents to help their children on the autism spectrum and with other different abilities. Research lead me to understand that these children were drawn to the water like magnets, often with tragic consequences. In fact, drowning is a leading cause of death for these children.
So with a handful of highly trained instructors, we started an adaptive program for children initially, but then expanded to adults as well, working with those with cognitive and physical challenges as well as those who experience trauma around the water. As a near drowning victim myself at a young age, I particularly enjoy working with people to help them break through those experiences to show that they can indeed learn to be competent and confident swimmers!
Pop Social Enterprise: What is one thing you are most proud of about your program?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): My Dad served in the Navy in WW11 and I wanted to honor his service. So I started a program for young men and women who wanted to join the Coast Guard, Navy or Marines, but did not have the skills to pass the required swim test. We now have 59 men and women in service as a result of this program.
Prior to the pandemic, we started a program for Veterans to close that loop. In addition to the military, we have more than 2 dozen graduates who went on to join the NYPD and FDNY as well as more than 250 that became aquatics professionals as life guards and instructors. Our programs lead to great careers as first responders!
Pop Social Enterprise: What is your current project?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): In 2018, I started to deliver a school based environmentally focused water safety program called, “Know Before You Go™”. This initially was a power point presentation given to about 7,000 students in 18 schools. It was meant for swimmers and non-swimmers to help them understand the different challenges and dangers each body of water represented, so they could make decisions which would keep them safe in, on and around the water.
It was during this time that I started a partnership with Ed Accura, a Black British hip hop artist, living in London, who created “A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim,” which calls out the stereotypical reasons that Blacks don’t swim with a goal to change those perspectives. I showed the film and lead discussions on the topic as well as wove in water safety information to about 600 adults in NAACP meetings, Black churches, civic organizations and a presentation at St. John’s University.
Pop Social Enterprise: What do you think about climate change and its impact on water levels?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): Over the years we have been experiencing increasing water levels; strengthening and lengthening of hurricane and tropical storm season; the development of our various water fronts and wild weather happening due to climate change. In the Fall of 2019, I initiated legislation, which mandated the training of water safety in New York State schools Grades k-12 (Bills S2207 and A728). Our ever more watery-world has become a public safety issue. ALL of us swimmers and non-swimmers, must develop a deeper understanding of water and develop a new relationship with it. Education is the key to help our children learn how to safely navigate through these changes.
Pop Social Enterprise: How is the pandemic affecting your program?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): During the heights of the pandemic, Swim Strong was not able to provide in water classes nor our dry side educational programming. So, I hired a curriculum writer to transform our program into a much deeper and more robust one that is created around National CDC and SHAPE standards and also includes age appropriate STEM based exercises. It now also includes looking at water from a seasonal point of view. This program was delivered to 4 NYC schools and 3,875 students from January-June of 2021. We are launching the next phase of outreach to schools across the US in August 2021 with a goal of 10,000 students receiving this training in the 2021-22 school year. There are 58 million students in the US alone. We have a lot of work to do!
Pop Social Enterprise: Where should our readers go to find your programs?
Shawn Slevin (Swim Strong Foundation): Our 4 programs for schools, groups, families and individuals can be found here: https://www.swimstrongfoundation.org/know-before-you-go/