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Legacy funds could help close the swimming gap

“The world is 71% water and children are 100% curious.”

So said Shannon Kinstler, aquatics director for YMCA of the North, to the House Legacy Finance Committee Wednesday. But that curiosity has proven dangerous, and sometimes deadly, when children enter the water without swimming skills.

That’s why Kinstler supports HF1166, a bill sponsored by Rep. Ami Wazlawik (DFL-White Bear Township) that would provide $500,000 in fiscal year 2022 for water safety grants to be funded by the state’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

The grant funds, administered by the Department of Education, would be used to provide scholarships to low-income and at-risk children for swimming lessons. Up to 15% of the funds could be used to hire or train water safety instructors or lifeguards.

The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in a Legacy omnibus bill. It has no Senate companion.

“In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, outdoor recreation is part of our culture,” Wazlawik said. “Unfortunately, not everyone has the skills to be safe. In the U.S., drowning is the second leading cause of death for children under 14, second only to car crashes. About 830 children die each year. … This bill provides funding for scholarships so children can learn to be safe around water.”

“The loss continues,” Kinstler said. “COVID only made things worse. In 2020, we saw 44 drowning deaths in Minnesota, nine more than the year before. On June 16, there were four near-drownings in the city of Minneapolis alone.”

Statistics show drowning to be a tragedy more commonly experienced by people of color and those from low-income families.

According to a study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation, 79% of children in homes with incomes of less than $50,000 have little to no swimming ability. The research also shows that 64% of African American children, 45% of Latino children and 40% of white children have little to no swimming ability.

“Similar to our achievement gap, we have a swimming gap,” Kintsler said. “African American children are three times more likely to drown than their white peers. We believe this reality is unacceptable.

“Swim lessons go a long way toward changing this. And safer children become safer adults. This bill includes funding for 10,000 children getting swim lessons around the state from community education, parks and recreation programs, Girl Scouts, anyone who provides nationally credentialed swimming education programs.”

And it’s a bill with bipartisan support: Its eight sponsors include five DFL House members and three Republicans.

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