The MUSA program idea began out of need, first and foremost. As the director of summer camp programs for many years, it was always challenging to find certified lifeguards to accompany my campers to the NYC pools.
The Department of Health mandates a required number of lifeguards for each pool visit. No lifeguards, NO SWIMMING! So, to solve this problem, I decided to hire a Red Cross instructor to train the older youth enrolled in my teen programs to be lifeguards.
Once they completed the course, I would be able to guarantee them a summer job. What a brilliant plan, right?
Wrong! It turns out that very few children of color can swim, let alone pass a lifeguarding course. How does a youth development professional of many years not know this? Well, it's because I can swim and I made the assumption that a lot of kids had the same childhood experiences I did.
Although I grew up in very similar circumstances as the youth in my programs, my mom allowed me to go to sleep away camp at the age of eight. The counselors at camp Wilbur Hurlich in upstate New York taught me to swim, in a lake, of all places.
After my initial attempt to develop a lifeguarding program for teens failed, I started to research the topic of swimming as it relates to black and brown youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drowning was the second cause of unintentional death for African American and Latino youth between 2001 and 2010.
Nationally 3,707 black and Latino youth under the age of 18 died from drowning, including 121 deaths in New York. Eighty percent of the victims were male.
This was a devastating fact to uncover. Further, it appears that one of the biggest reasons that minority youth don't learn to swim is because their parents have a fear of water. This fear is passed along by one generation after another, and this, coupled with the fact that affordable swim instruction programs are virtually non-existent, has led to the devastating consequences hinted by the above statistics.
I also learned more about the actual training required to become a lifeguard during this process, and started to see the parallels with positive youth development. A lifeguarding course builds character and teaches responsibility, as well as leadership skills.
Participants are challenged at each step in the course, and the opportunity to obtain a high-paying aquatics position motivates them. Certified lifeguards earn, on average, $15 to $30 per hour, significantly higher than the minimum wage and far above the rate most teenagers in other jobs earn.
I also believed that because the course was only 36 hours, it would not be overwhelming to my youth, who seemed to shy away from programs that were long and drawn out. Lastly, I chose to make my program exclusively for boys because they are the ones who not only drown at higher rates, but were also at the top of every "at-risk" metric: drop-out rates, unemployment rates, and incarceration rates, etc.
Thus, the MUSA project was born, and for the last year I have been on a mission to see this idea come to fruition. The "My Voice, Our City" competition was right on time.
It is my belief that this program can keep struggling black and Latino boys on track to graduate high school on time and go on to college or a career. It is designed with components such as homework assistance, counseling and role models to support their development.
In addition, all participants are required to participate in community service activities to promote the benefits of both learning to swim and the MUSA project. It also promotes health, as swimming is one of the best full-body exercises that exists.
However, the silver bullet is the development of life skills through a fun and engaging activity that leads to self-sufficiency. It has the ability to develop and transform boys into men that can ultimately contribute positively to their community.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Ashoka Changemakers, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative in recognition of the "My Voice, Our City" competition, which aims to empower black and Latino young men ages 16-24. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about "My Voice, Our City", click here; about Ashoka Changemakers, click here; and about the Young Men's Initiative, click here.