Free Pools for Baltimore Youth? Why Not?

by Ryan Boddy

I want to state up front that the basis for this idea is NOT originally mine, so I’ll explain where it came from below. Like a lot of my stories, it’s a bit long.

In my teenage years and early adulthood, I lived in Glendale, Arizona. I made my summer money as a lifeguard for City of Phoenix Aquatics. I worked at a variety of pools as both a standby guard with no permanent pool, and as a permanent guard and water safety instructor, which is to say that I also taught swimming lessons and coached club teams. I worked at pools in both fairly upscale neighborhoods, and at truly low-income pools, so I saw a wide panorama of conditions, and a very broad spectrum of patrons of every ethnicity and background imaginable.

At the pools in the historically less wealthy neighborhoods of the southern half of the city (20 pools total), there was a program called Kool Kids that provided free admission for children for the entire day of swimming. The funding for this program came from corporate sponsors — sadly a lot more of them than you’ll currently see on the site linked above.

In return for this sponsorship, many of the facilities sported corporate logos on the bottoms of the pools. There were free programs like Junior Lifeguarding, and the Cub Club that was essentially junior-junior lifeguarding for kids 8–12 that were also supported through corporate sponsorships. As you might imagine, with Phoenix as hot as it is all summer, the pools with such sponsorships were quite often packed to the gills. The neighborhoods certainly had kids who didn’t go to the pool, and there was — what the media definitely referred to — as a gang problem in Phoenix during the 90s. But in general the kids at the Kool Kids pools were there from open to close or darn close to it — somewhere around 11 a.m. until either 8 or 10 p.m. depending on the pool.

The point I’m trying to make is that for three months of the year, kids in less fortunate neighborhoods were kept busy at the pools for the majority of the day, all seven days a week, and off the streets where they could more easily get into unsupervised trouble.

As an adult, I moved to Baltimore City. I’m not a lifeguard anymore — as my site should make apparent, but I still love to go swimming, and I know that spending a day at the pool is a great way to beat the humidity and heat. I’m a homeowner with an acute recognition that we live in times of austerity. Our governor ignores the City’s need for more adequate East/West transit. Our mayor’s plans to attract younger families to the City fail because the measures meant to shore up the budget force service cuts and make life harder for current residents as well as less attractive to prospective ones. And then there’s the police-caused protests and unrest of the past spring

At present, Baltimore City Pools cost kids who attend the neighborhood walkup pools “$1 per two hour swim session,” and kids who attend the larger, park pools with more amenities “$2 per two hour swim session.” The pools aren’t generally open before noon, and the neighborhood pools close at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with even shorter hours on Sundays. The park pools are open later but cost double the money for the same ultimately short amount of time to swim. Children and families who can’t afford the fee simply can’t swim.

Let’s face it, poor kids with no access to park and pool activities during the long, spring and summer days are also kids more likely to get into trouble. The poorest children in Baltimore aren’t served by its aquatics program because the program isn’t free. Swim lesson program schedules and fees aren’t easily found if they’re even listed on the City’s aquatics website, much less subsidized by the City or some other entity. Other swim programs in the City like Michael Phelps’ laudable swim school in Meadowbrook still cost money, and only exist in one location, most kids aren’t walking themselves to it.

Baltimore has no shortage of resident corporations — the mayor and City Council actively give incredible tax breaks to them to get them to remain in the city limits. Even corporations outside of the City proper would have an interest in supporting improved recreation facilities, and pools. But rather than focus on retaining residents and improving quality of life for the entire City, the City government focused on corporate handouts to failed programs like the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Yes, there is a Baltimore City Aquatics plan, and it’s awesome that it has a focus on accessibility for disabled patrons, and the provision of access to swimming lessons for all school aged children, but it doesn’t make the pools more affordable to City residents as much as it discusses consolidation of services and how to best serve the populace. The plan was devised in 2012, but it’s 2015 and there has been no increase in hours or reduction in cost. What’s more, the plan makes it apparent that the City operates pools at a loss due to the age of the pools, the need for security personnel, and other factors including staffing shortages. Park pools’ actual cost per attendee is $8 per visit, whereas walk-to pools actual cost is about $18 per visit. If the City had increased subsidy from non-government sources, it would seem this operations issue could be resolved, and service to the children of Baltimore could be improved.

The kids of East and West Baltimore would be best served by being given unlimited access to the pools for free.

While I’m generally fairly anti-corporate in my leanings, why shouldn’t we ask our citizen businesses to put something substantial back into the City, and aid the parks department in its noble goal. The plan could be accomplished much more swiftly and robustly with the addition of funding and subsidy provided by companies with an interest in the health of the City at large.

So here’s the big idea:

Free Pools for Baltimore’s Kids

Let’s get the big corporations in Baltimore — including and especially the sports franchises — to help fund the City pools for the whole summer, and then let’s collectively get them to do even more.

I envision things going like this:

  • Start the pilot program for at least a year at the two largest pools on opposite sides of the City — Patterson and Druid Hill. This gives both East and West Baltimore a free pool to play in all Summer. Both are fairly accessible via public transit, and both are large enough to accommodate big crowds.
  • Pools should be free for everyone under the age of 18 — ALL DAY, not just for a two hour swim session. Subsidies for pool operating costs should come from corporate sponsors, who are then given a tax break based on the total output to the pools; equal exchange, not corporate welfare. In addition, the sponsors’ logo would go on the bottom of the pool. Imagine that HUGE Ravens or Orioles logo on the bottom of Patterson/Druid Hill — the kids would eat it up.
  • With successful implementation and budgeting, the program would move to other park pools, and eventually neighborhood pools, making it possible for EVERY young person in Baltimore to go swimming for free every summer.

But why not go beyond even that —

Kids in Baltimore have few opportunities to learn to swim, and also few opportunities to get jobs.

The City of Phoenix paid me a substantial wage to be a lifeguard. After all, the job required significant skill on the part of the people who did it. We had to know how to swim, had to be in good enough physical shape to perform as a lifeguard, had to know CPR, first aid, lifesaving techniques, and we had to be leaders capable of enforcing the rules of the pool and instructing children to swim. In 1992, at the tender age of 15, I made more than $10 per hour, and that wage increased when I turned 17 and completed my Water Safety Instruction certification. Even now, 20 plus years later, $10 per hour is more than many typical Baltimore adults make, it’s more than the state minimum wage of $8.15. For three months of the year while I was in school, I made more money than people significantly older than me.

Why not use the Kool Kids model from Phoenix to create a self-sustaining summer jobs program for kids in their own neighborhoods at an appropriate wage?

  • In addition to supporting simple operating costs, sponsorship would provide completely free swimming lessons for the first 100 children per three-week session whose parents sign them up. As the program grows to include more than simply the park pools, the number of spots for children wanting to take lessons would increase.
  • Kids who complete a session will be given priority to sign up for the next session at the same — if required — or subsequent level of proficiency. Their names and parental contact information would be collected to reach out for priority registration in subsequent sessions and summers via opt-in mailings, emails, text messages, etc.
  • Once children complete the entire course of study — from parent-tot lessons to expert swimmer — children would be given the chance to join a program focused on water safety, basic lifesaving, and eventually CPR and First Aid certification on their way to junior lifeguarding programs that would see kids helping paid lifeguards do their duties.
  • Junior lifeguarding graduates (at a minimum age of 15) would be given the opportunity to take a lifeguard training program and would receive priority during subsequent rounds of lifeguard hiring at City pools.
  • Successful lifeguards from the program will then be given the chance to take Water Safety Instruction courses at 17, and can go on to teach the kids at their pools to swim as well.
  • Interested children would be given the opportunity to compete in various aquatic sports (swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming, etc.) at the larger park pools that can accommodate such sports, with volunteer lifeguard coaches paid an increased wage.
  • Further career progression for successful lifeguards would involve management training and eventual promotion to lead guard, assistant manager, and finally pool manager.

Implemented appropriately, the program would become self-sustaining in terms of staffing, and help Baltimore’s less-fortunate kids stay off the street, learn to swim, and develop valuable job skills with the chance to eventually get jobs of their own to help their community.

Obviously this sounds much easier than it would actually be to implement, but it’s certainly something that could help Baltimore substantially. Who amongst us in the City wouldn’t step up if we could to help Baltimore? Who’s down to bug those top corporations in this City about something awesome like what Phoenix did more than 20 years ago?


Originally published at ryanboddy.com on July 28, 2015.

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