Tom Wunderlich, associate director of aquatic advancement, guides a student in a lesson during a lifeguard academy session on Saturday, at the Colby Avenue YMCA in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Tom Wunderlich, associate director of aquatic advancement, guides a student in a lesson during a lifeguard academy session on Saturday, at the Colby Avenue YMCA in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Swimming for good: Everett YMCA’s lifeguard class uplifts at-risk kids

Teens learn water safety and leadership skills during the course. The training chips away at a history of racial disparities.

EVERETT — It’s a Thursday night after school, and a group of teenagers gathered in the Everett YMCA’s conference room are enthusiastically filling out job applications.

The job in question is a lifeguard position at the YMCA pool. The kids aren’t qualified for it yet, but thanks to the organization’s new lifeguard academy program, they will be in just a matter of weeks. In the meantime, they’re learning to write a cover letter and gather references. It’s rare to hear any high school student say they truly enjoy doing homework, but this class is an exception.

“The homework is actually kind of nice,” said student Victoria Lopéz, 16. “I like that I have a chance to see what I can really expect out there when I start applying for jobs for real.”

At the end of the 10-week class, all 13 students will receive lifeguard certifications, making them eligible for summer gigs at the YMCA or any other pool out there. But beyond swimming skills and CPR training, the class aims to give students the leadership and professional skills they’ll need to be successful in any job. And with kids of color historically having been excluded from swimming, the class’ leaders say the program is breaking barriers across generations.

The academy is open to kids ages 15 to 20 from any background, said Kim Gaffney, executive director of youth leadership for YMCA of Snohomish County. But Gaffney said the organization made a concerted effort to involve children of color and those from low-income households. A 2017 survey showed that up to 64% of Black children have little or no swimming ability, and kids who qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch are 63% less likely to be able to swim.

Gaffney said this disparity goes back decades, rooted in racial segregation and class divides that prevented people of color and low-income families from accessing public pools and water safety education. As a result, Black children are 1½ times more likely to drown than white kids, and Indigenous kids are twice as likely, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Tom Wunderlich, director of aquatic advancement for YMCA of Snohomish County, said the lifeguard academy was initially conceived to increase water safety knowledge among those groups in the Everett area. The organization wanted to provide kids with important skills while creating connections that would hopefully encourage more at-risk kids to learn how to swim in the future.

“If we can get these kids in, give them the confidence boost as a young adult to learn how to swim, it’s a game changer for them,” Wunderlich said. “Because now they have this new skill that a lot of people don’t have, they can take that back into their communities and share that water safety. And who knows what they can do with it.”

The leadership aspect of the course came later as Gaffney and Wunderlich considered how kids would be able to apply lifeguard training to their real lives, whether or not they go on to a career in water safety. It’s also an important part of increasing job accessibility among marginalized groups, Gaffney said.

Over the course of the academy, the students will build their resumes, write cover letters, gather letters of recommendation and learn the basics of workplace professionalism, Gaffney said. They’re expected to arrive to class on time, three days a week, and to give the instructors ample notice if they can’t make it. They need to be wearing the proper uniform and to come prepared with their materials and homework.

Tom Wunderlich, associate director of aquatic advancement, guides a student in a lesson during a lifeguard academy session on Saturday, at the Colby Avenue YMCA in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Tom Wunderlich, associate director of aquatic advancement, guides a student in a lesson during a lifeguard academy session on Saturday, at the Colby Avenue YMCA in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The instructors make sure the kids have what they need to be fully engaged in their work: Meals are provided, transit passes are offered, and for future programs, Gaffney hopes to offer child care for young parents or kids babysitting younger siblings.

Gaffney said the academy offers one-on-one guidance to build these skills in kids who might slip through the cracks in their school classrooms, or who lack the resources at home to learn on their own time. The goal is for students to have the tools and resources they need to apply for jobs or to colleges when they graduate, plus the confidence that they know what they’re capable of.

And of course, the kids will spend a lot of time in the pool. The students have varying degrees of comfort in the water, Wunderlich said, but even on the first day, all of them were ready to jump right in and show what they knew. As the course goes on, they’ll become stronger swimmers and learn the basics of water safety and rescue.

Gaffney said the students’ enthusiasm for the class and genuine willingness to learn struck her from the very first session. Most of the students have never met before, but Gaffney said a supportive community formed right away. On the first day in the pool, one of the students was a slower swimmer than his classmates. Once they’d completed their laps, all the other kids raced alongside him on the pool’s edge, cheering him on until he reached the finish line.

“They all took that first step, they all came in, they were all engaged, they were all participating,” Gaffney said. “And I think that took it up another level, that definitely made it clear for me that even if it’s going to be harder in some areas, it’s going to be easier just because of their willingness to learn and their willingness to be vulnerable and challenge themselves to try new things.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192;; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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