Following tragic drownings, state partners with local organizations to offer free swim lessons

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
PAXTON - Jeannette Alvarez-McCusker wraps daughter CJ in a towel after a swim lesson with the British Swim School inside the Paxton Tennis & Fitness Club Friday, April 1, 2022.

Watching her 6-year-old daughter CJ at her weekly swimming lessons brings a mix of emotions for Jeannette McCusker.

CJ is brave and she loves the water. Sometimes that fearlessness makes her mom uneasy. But mostly McCusker feels grateful. That CJ knows how to swim brings peace of mind to the Spencer mom whose oldest daughter drowned when she was just a toddler.

It was Easter Sunday 2016 when CJ’s older sister, Elizabeth, wandered off from a family brunch in West Newbury. She was found in a pond in the nearby woods, and later died at the hospital.

“Elizabeth didn’t know how to swim,” said McCusker. “If there’s one thing I could share, it’s that parents really need to get their kids to learn how to swim. It’s so important.”

CJ takes weekly swim lessons with the British Swim School of Worcester, one of 10 organizations offering free beginner swim lessons through June 30 as part of the state’s Safe Water Initiative Massachusetts (SWIM).

The SWIM program was launched last year, following a series of tragic drownings throughout the state.

In May 2021, 12- and 13-year-old cousins drowned while skipping rocks at a Brockton lake, and a 16-year-old boy drowned at Learned Pond in Framingham. In June, Worcester Police Officer Manny Familia drowned trying to save three children struggling in the water at Green Hill Pond. A 14-year-old boy also died in the incident.

Days later, a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old drowned in separate incidents at state beaches. In July, a 17-year-old boy drowned in the Squannacook River in Groton.

PAXTON - Jeannette Alvarez-McCusker, right, watches her daughter CJ during a swim lesson with the British Swim School inside the Paxton Tennis & Fitness Club Friday, April 1, 2022.

SWIM is part of a larger water safety initiative that includes new safety infrastructure at state waterfronts and the launch of a new Swim Safe Massachusetts collaboration among state and nonprofit partners to raise public awareness around water and swimming safety. The state awarded $475,000 in grants nonprofit and private organizations to expand free beginner swim lessons to Massachusetts residents of all ages this spring.   

Local organizations offering free lessons through SWIM include the British Swim School of Worcester, which offers classes in Paxton, Worcester and Westborough; the West Suburban YMCA in Newton; and the YMCA of Central Mass. in Worcester.

There are no income thresholds to take advantage of the program. Interested individuals should contact the locations directly for sign-up opportunities.

Danny Boliver, who owns the British Swim School of Worcester, hopes the program reaches families in need before children are out at pools and beaches this summer.

“It’s not fair that families that cannot afford classes can’t learn to be safe in the water. It’s something that haunts us,” she said. “This is about basic water survival.”

Drowning is the single leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4. Teens, who can be overconfident in their swimming abilities, are the second age group at highest risk of drowning, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP recommends children begin swimming lessons around age 1, but notes that it’s “never too late” to develop water survival skills.

“No matter how old they are – an infant or toddler, little kid, a teenager, even adults. This can save their life,” said McCusker.

“There is no upper age limit for water safety,” Bolivar agreed. 

The SWIM program builds on the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s annual Learn to Swim Program, which brings free swim lessons to DCR pools over three two-week sessions in the summer. Last year, more than 300 young people took part. Learn to Swim will be announced on agency swimming pool’s websites in June, said DCR spokeswoman Carolyn Assa, and lessons will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

PAXTON - British Swim School instructor Ceara Sweeney teaches CJ during a swim lesson at the Paxton Tennis & Fitness Club Friday, April 1, 2022.