Proviso East students participate in a drill during the last day of a 5-week Red Cross lifeguard and training certification program provided through a partnership between the Oak Park-based West Cook YMCA and Proviso Township High Schools District 209. | Submitted photos [West Cook YMCA and Proviso Township Districts 209]
Tuesday, May 9, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Cameron Wollenschlager, a 17-year-old junior at Proviso East High School in nearby Maywood, climbed soaking wet out of the high school’s long underused swimming pool.
It was the last day of a 5-week Red Cross lifeguard and training certification program provided through a partnership between the Oak Park-based West Cook YMCA and Proviso Township High Schools District 209.
“Before I started this program, I wasn’t that strong of a lifeguard. I didn’t get the basics, but as we progressed it got much easier and the ideas and concepts came much more fluent to me,” Wollenschlager said last Friday, moments before he would receive the certificate that will allow him to interview, and likely land, a lifeguard position at one of the YMCA’s numerous aquatics facilities, or to apply for a lifeguard job somewhere else if he chooses.
But the Maywood resident, along with the program’s 10 other participants, all Proviso East Students, has his sights on lifeguarding inside of his hometown’s sole public swimming pool — the Fred Hampton Aquatic Center.
Since 2011, the West Cook YMCA has operated and maintained the pool for Maywood. And in 2014, the YMCA entered into an agreement with the village to split the costs and profits related to the pool in half.
This year, due to the lifeguard training, the pool is poised to employ more local residents than it has in recent years and, after the district puts a second class of certified lifeguards through training next fall, Proviso East will be able to finally start offering swimming instruction again to a population that needs it the most.
According to a study completed by the University of Memphis and commissioned by USA Swimming, nearly 70 percent of African American young people, and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic young people, are weak swimmers or can’t swim at all, elevating the rate at which black and brown kids drown relative to their white counterparts.
Proviso East, whose student population is roughly half African American and half Hispanic, doesn’t currently offer swimming lessons because there aren’t enough certified personnel to man the pool during classes, said Tracy McCormick, the PE department chair.
“When I went here, we didn’t have this opportunity,” said Christina Arrendondo, 20, a Proviso East graduate who trained this inaugural class of Proviso East lifeguards. “I remember one time, a teacher was taking her class down to the pool for probably four weeks. That was the only time I’d seen the pool or been active with the pool out of my four years here.”
Arrendondo, whose mother was a lifeguard, said that the training not only builds skills, but self-trust and confidence.
“They had to trust themselves and challenge themselves to go down to the bottom of the pool and save someone’s life,” she said. “They all did an amazing job. I’m proud of them.”
“Part of our vision is to embrace partnerships because they add value to the work we do. That’s one of our core beliefs,” said District 209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez, adding that he hopes to enhance and scale up the program at East to Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy in the future.
Phillip Jimenez, the West Cook YMCA president and CEO, said that his organization’s entry into District 209 will help ease the demand for aquatic space currently felt in Oak Park.
“We’re always struggling to find great life guards, so we said, ‘Why don’t we produce them out of Proviso East?’ It’s not just a life skill, but it’s also an economic and employment opportunity,” Jimenez said.
He added that the YMCA is also exploring a facility sharing arrangement with the district, so that some of the organization’s aquatics programming, such as family pool time and competitive swimming, can be offered at Proviso East in the future.
Joann Kouba, a registered dietician and faculty member at the high school, said that the partnership between the school and the YMCA came about from a meeting with members from Proviso Partners for Health — a broad coalition of entities brought together by Loyola University Health System to fight childhood obesity — and the school’s community wellness committee.
“Through the years, we realized that we have to expand our programming,” Kouba said. “Wellness committees are a USDA mandate, every school district in the country is supposed to have a wellness policy and committee. They’re specifically all about obesity prevention.”
Kouba said that, during a meeting last fall, someone suggested that utilizing the school’s pool would be a way to provide more physical activity options for students.
“When we learned that the pool wasn’t in use because of the lack of certified and trained staff, we said, ‘Let’s fix that,’’ said Shanika Blanton, a PP4H member.
“So we talked to students and asked them if they wanted to swim, but many didn’t even know there was a pool at Proviso East,” Blanton said. “The only people using it were teachers who swam in it after work and ROTC.”
McCormick, who is a wellness committee member, the school’s principal, Dr. Patrick Hardy, and Supt. Rodriguez instantly warmed to the idea. Around the same time, three D209 board members — Claudia Medina, Ned Wagner and Theresa Kelly — approached Jimenez with the possibility of a formal partnership.
Soon afterward, the collaboration had legs, with the YMCA offering staff and monetary support. Currently, the organization is heavily subsidizing the training program so that each student only pays a fraction of the $300 cost.
In exchange, around a dozen students have newfound opportunities — young people like Tyler, an 18-year-old graduating senior and Maywood resident who plans on going to the Air Force.
“This will be my first job,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of challenges and a lot of pressure on you to have to get down and dirty and save someone’s life.”
“I’m excited,” said Christian Palomares, 16, of Maywood, who is looking forward to working his first job as a lifeguard. “I want to learn as much as much as I can.”
McCormick said that the lifeguard training program still needs equipment, such as swimming caps and face masks. Two months ago, she started a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise money for the program. The campaign has so far raised $850 of its $5,700 goal. To donate, click here. VFP