Desiree Radford remembers what it felt like watching her 4-year-old son almost drown.
Malik couldn’t swim that day in 2002. He was sitting on the edge of a hotel pool near Disney World and kicked his feet in the water. Then he lost his balance.
“My heart sank,” Radford said,
She watched Malik’s arms flail in the water before a lifeguard saved him.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t like, as a parent, feeling helpless,” the Buffalo woman said.
On Saturday, Radford and two of her children attended Buffalo City Swim Racers’ first Water Safety Festival at City Honors School. Organizers held the free event, open to students in the Buffalo Public Schools district, to help children – particularly African-Americans – learn to swim and save others who are drowning.
Nearly 70 percent of African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 have inadequate swimming skills, compared with 40 percent of Caucasian children, according to a study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis. They’re nearly three times more likely to drown than their white peers.
About 60 attendees – mostly African-American children with their parents – attended the event. It had three parts: A demonstration of how to help a distressed swimmer in the water while standing on land; CPR basic training; and swimming lessons.
Young African-Americans have a higher chance of drowning for three reasons, said Buffalo City Swim Racers Executive Director Mike Switalski: fear, economics and access.
Radford and Tanesha Kyle, also of Buffalo, are among those who have struggled to teach their children how to swim.
Kyle brought her youngest daughter, Kayla, 9, to the festival for Kayla’s first swimming lesson.
Kyle’s two older children took lessons at Erie Community College as youngsters. She could afford those lessons because she had financial support from her husband. Now, they are separated, and she lacks the extra income.
“That’s why it took so long for me to get her swimming, because I couldn’t afford it,” said Kyle, who works full time at a medical office.
Kyle said her children, and many others in the city, usually don’t have access to extracurricular activities such as swimming because of the cost.
Neither Kyle nor Radford can swim. If a parent does not know how to swim, there is a 13 percent chance a child in that household will learn how to swim, according to the study.
Radford sat in the front stand at the City Honors School pool with her youngest daughter, 4-year-old Lady Essynce, as the Buffalo Fire Department demonstrated how to use clothing, branches and floaties to help someone who is drowning. Malik was Lady Essynce’s age when he almost drowned in 2002.
“For me, personally, I’m fearful of the water because I can’t swim,” Radford said. “I’m not around it a lot. The children don’t (naturally) have that fear; they learn that. And they learn that from their parents, who fear the water.”
Last June, Mustafa Ismail, a 17-year-old African-American from Buffalo, died in the Niagara River after he jumped into the water to save his little sister, who had slipped in. He was able to get his sister out. The incident inspired Switalski to start the Water Safety Festival.
“There’s a good possibility Mustafa would be alive today if he had known how to help a person while keeping himself on land, so he didn’t stand the risk of being the second victim,” Switalski said.
Switalski wants youths to become enthusiastic about swimming. Swimming should be fun, he said, but it’s important to do it safely and smartly.
“Swimming is the only sport that, if you know how to do it, it can save your life,” he said.