In 2009, Evanston pediatrician Aimee Crow reached out to the Flying Fish aquatics program at YWCA Evanston/North Shore with an innovative proposal: If she gave a child a “prescription” for swimming lessons, would the YWCA provide those lessons at a free or reduced cost?
The answer was “yes,” and this fall marked the ten-year anniversary of this creative partnership.
“We started this before Evanston Swims!, which provides second graders access to free lessons,” said Crow, who, in 2009, worked at an Evanston Hospital clinic. “I would see kids at the clinic who needed more affordable opportunities for physical activity and exercise. I also knew that many of them didn’t know how to swim, which was a huge safety issue.”
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 14, and 64 percent of African American children, 45 percent of Latino children, and 40 percent of Caucasian children have low or no swimming ability.
YWCA staffers were eager to help.
“It is part of our social justice mission to provide access and opportunity in our swimming pools,” said Peter Raffel, who serves as aquatics manager at YWCA Evanston/North Shore and leads the Flying Fish Swim School. “The ‘prescription to swim’ program has helped us reach families who might not otherwise walk through our doors.”
The Evanston Hospital clinic closed in 2013, so Crow moved the “prescription to swim” program to the Erie Family Health Center in Evanston, which provides care for medically underserved residents regardless of their ability to pay.
During routine check-ups, pediatricians at Erie talk about swimming in the same way they talk about reading, getting enough sleep, and eating fruits and vegetables. When they sense a child needs swim lessons or access to physical activity, they write a prescription for swimming with the Flying Fish.
Each year, anywhere from 15 to 30 families show up in the YWCA lobby with this meaningful slip of paper in hand.
“Several pediatricians and I have sent hundreds of kids to the YWCA Flying Fish over the years and we’ve seen it work,” said Crow.
She added, “I had one father who was a fairly new immigrant with four girls. Each time I would see this family, I would ask, ‘Did you sign them up for swimming yet?’ He was skeptical because neither he nor his wife could swim. Finally, about a year after I prescribed the lessons, the girls ran into the exam room and shouted, ‘We are swimming!’ They ranged from age 4 to 13 and they were so excited.”
According to Raffel, last year the Flying Fish Swim School provided 109 full financial scholarships and 742 partial scholarships. These included children who had “prescriptions.”
“It’s been great to see kids from our partnership with Erie stick with swimming. A lot end up on the Flying Fish swim team,” he said. “And it builds on itself because their parents have talked to their friends about the benefits of swimming at the YWCA, so we get more people simply by word of mouth. It has widened the circle of our community.”
To make a donation in support of the swimming scholarship program at YWCA Evanston/North Shore go to www.ywca-ens.org/donate and select “Oz Fund/Aquatics.”
The mission of Flying Fish Aquatics at YWCA Evanston/North Shore is to ensure that all children, regardless of shape, size, ethnicity, race, gender, physical ability or financial resources, reap the benefits of swimming, the most important of which is safety. It is one of the largest aquatics programs in Illinois. Learn more at www.ywca-ens.org/flyingfish