Evanston Swims, a community collaboration that gives second graders access to free swimming lessons, is marking its fifth year of operation.

The next sessions of Evanston Swims will be held on March 7 and May 2.

The program started as one of the ideas generated ahead of Evanston’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2013 and launched that year with the goal of giving all Evanston children access to swim lessons so they can be safe around water.

“By the end of this school year, we will have reached almost 1,500 kids since the program’s inception,” said Mary Miller, who coordinates Evanston Swims! as a part-time staffer at YWCA Evanston/North Shore. “This is particularly important since we live in a lakeside community.”

Through Evanston Swims, second graders in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 receive swim lessons when they have half days throughout the school year. They either bring a sack lunch or receive a lunch at school, and then are bused to their swimming site.

“If they don’t have swim gear, like a swimsuit or goggles, we provide that,” said Miller. “We make sure there are no barriers to these kids getting in the water.”

Miller likened Evanston Swims to a barn raising – something that only happens because so many people pitch in. The program is a partnership between YWCA Evanston/North Shore, McGaw YMCA, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

It also includes a host of other collaborators. For example, Three Crowns Park and Presbyterian Homes offer their pools. The Great Lake Plunge open-water swim raises funds for the program. And chaperones and instructors come from all corners of Evanston and include parents, masters swimmers, District 65 middle schoolers, and others who want to be involved.

Henry Clay-Barbour, an eighth grader at Chute Middle School, is in his third year of serving as a volunteer swim instructor with the program.

“I don’t have much else to do on half days, so why not do this? I love the kids and get to see them have positive experiences. I want to do it as long as I can because it’s really rewarding,” he said.

Eden Juron Pearlman, who serves as executive director of the Evanston History Center, was on the Evanston 150 planning committee and has been volunteering with Evanston Swims! since its inception.

“In all the years we’ve been doing this, I think I’ve only missed coming twice,” she said. “This program spoke to me because all through high school and college, I made my money by lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons. It felt like a natural fit. And my daughter and I volunteered together, which was great.”

She added, “It’s exciting to see these children progress. There was a year I had a girl who wouldn’t put her toe in at the beginning, but by the end she could get in, blow bubbles and swim a little. I used to think you couldn’t make a difference so quickly, but you can.”

Making a difference to improve the health and safety of children in Evanston is what the program is all about.

“Even though we think of swimming as recreation, learning to swim is a public health and safety issue,” said Miller. “It’s wonderful that so many people get this and want to be part of the program. Evanston Swims! goes beyond teaching kids to swim. We’re offering a venue for people to serve. All of the people who are part of Evanston Swims! are making an impact for the next generation of Evanstonians and for generations to come.”

More information about the program is available online.

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