Since 1971, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady has been teaching kids to swim at its Rotterdam clubhouse.
Each year, about 700 kids receive swim lessons there, and about 2,000 use the pool for lessons, free swims, birthdays parties and other events and programs. The organization also runs a senior swim program.
But the future of the pool is in jeopardy.
The pool was shut down in the spring, after an engineer determined parts of its steel structure are in poor condition and present a safety concern. Repairs are estimated to cost about $400,000, according to Shane Bargy, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady.
“The financial impact of this is devastating,” he said, while noting that the cost of fixing the pool is still cheaper than buying a new one. “Our goal is to figure out how to keep the pool alive.”
Bargy said it’s important that kids learn to swim, and the Boys & Girls Clubs is one of the few places in the area that offers low-cost lessons. During the school year, lessons are free to children ages 6 and up who have paid the club’s $10 member fee, while summer lessons cost $25.
“This is a quality of life issue,” Bargy said. “It’s a safety issue for kids. We feel our job as a youth development organization is to make sure kids are taught how to swim. How could you, as a person who doesn’t know how to swim, go to a picnic at a lake and not think that you could fall in and drown? And forget about boating, and fishing. Swimming is a skill everyone should have.”
About 70 percent of Boys & Girls Club members qualify for the federal free and reduced price school lunch program, a measure of poverty, he said.
A 2010 study commissioned by USA Swimming found that nearly 70 percent of black children and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim or have low swim ability, compared to 40 percent of white children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fatal drowning rate for black children between ages 5 and 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range.
Judy Atchinson, who runs Schenectady after-school arts program Quest, which serves at-risk teens, said she doubts many of the youths in her program know how to swim.
“I have kids here who don’t even own a bathing suit, who don’t even have shorts,” she said.
For children to become good swimmers, they need to take lessons for several years, Atchinson said.
“It needs to be consistent and continued,” she said. “I do not see that happening with my kids.”
According to the USA Swimming study, if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.
One option for learning to swim is the pool at Schenectady High School.
The pool was closed to the public in 2010 after the district budget was voted down; the district said the cost of operating the pool was too high to be covered by charging the few non-student swimmers who used it. But the pool reopened to the public last fall, under the auspices of the Capital Region YMCA.
Cheryl Hardcastle serves as regional aquatics director for the Capital Region YMCA and runs the Schenectady High School pool and the organization’s pool in Glenville. She said her goal is to teach every child in Schenectady how to swim, and she’d like to find a way to get every third grader in for lessons. But it isn’t going to be easy.
“Even if you offer free lessons, parents don’t bring their kids,” she said. “They don’t consider it a priority.”
Schenectady is “a totally different world” from Glenville, where parents often enroll their kids in lessons at the age of 3 and make sure they receive years of instruction, Hardcastle said.
In Glenville, each session of lessons attracts about 300 kids; in Schenectady, Hardcastle’s first session of lessons attracted about 30. However, those numbers are growing: Her third session drew 85 kids.
“The number of kids in lessons in Schenectady should be equal to the number of kids in Glenville,” Hardcastle said. “I’m experimenting with ways to get them in here. ... I’m trying to get the word out there that you don’t have to have money to use the pool.”
The Schenectady High School pool is open between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m., and again in the afternoon — when swim teams are competing in the fall and winter, the pool opens from 5:30 to 9 p.m., and when the team is not competing the pool opens right after school. The pool is also open Saturdays between 8 a.m. and noon.
A monthly pool membership for youths is $15, but scholarships enable poor children to take lessons and swim for free. The YMCA is running a summer camp at the high school this year and will also bus children enrolled in its camp at Jerry Burrell Park over to the high school to use the pool.
Two years ago, the organization lost a pool when it closed its State Street YMCA and moved into a pool-less new facility in Center City in downtown Schenectady. Hardcastle said the pool at the high school is more attractive to kids than the old YMCA facility on State Street.
“That was a scarier area,” she said. “The people who swam there were older. For kids, the high school is their stomping ground.”
The city of Schenectady opens four pools during the summer: the Central Park, Hillhurst, Quackenbush and Front Street pools.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady manages all of the pools except Front Street, which is run by the YWCA. Lessons are offered at both Quackenbush and Central Park.
The city of Albany lost two pools in 2010: the pool at the Washington Avenue YMCA and city-run Public Bath No. 2, which charged residents $1 to swim. In both cases, officials cited the cost of maintenance as a reason to shut down the facilities. The city provides public swimming at the Arbor Hill Community Center, and the North Albany YMCA also has a pool.
Albany resident Lynne Jackson swam regularly at Public Bath No. 2, which was located in the South End, where she lives. She said she was furious when the city closed the pool, and she worries that children from the South End do not have a place to swim, because it’s difficult for the kids in her neighborhood to get to Arbor Hill.
“Sometimes you would go to [Public Bath No. 2] and the place would be packed with kids,” Jackson said. “Where do kids in the South End go to swim now?”
The pool at the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Rotterdam clubhouse dates back to the 1940s, when it was built out of airplane steel to serve a local Army depot.
The bad news about the pool came just as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady was finishing a $105,000 renovation of the clubhouse’s locker rooms. Bargy said that in recent years the club has made an effort to upgrade the Quonset hut that serves as its Rotterdam site.
Two years ago, the organization completed a $20,000 renovation of the building’s kitchen, and plans for a $150,000 renovation of the hut itself are in the works.
Many of these renovations are financed using a combination of gifts and grants provided by individuals, businesses and foundations.
The Rotterdam pool was last renovated in 1995, after the roof collapsed and the shell of the pool was found to be rusting. It costs between $75,000 and $80,000 to run the pool annually, according to the organization, which operates 13 sites and extensions, mainly in Schenectady County.
Bargy said the pool is busy year-round.
“Our pool never rests.”