FAIRFIELD, Conn. — There are four things Jermaine Culler likes about summer.
“Football, swimming, basketball and swimming,” he said as he stood, dripping wet, at the edge of the shore at Bridgeport’s Seaside Park.
His answer — and his fixation on swimming — might have been very different a few years ago before he joined Horizons, a free academic summer enrichment program run by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
In addition to spending each morning in fun hands-on learning sessions, the 120 Bridgeport students — in kindergarten through fifth grade — spend a half-hour each day in a pool learning to swim.
And with good reason: An estimated 70 percent of inner-city children don’t know how to swim, said Jeff Rumpf, Horizon’s executive director. In fact, drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 0 to 12 in inner-city neighborhoods, he said.
“We’re saving lives, literally,” said Rumpf.
On Friday afternoon, the group headed to Bridgeport for its annual Seaside Swimabration, a day of playing, relay races and biostation learning at the shore.
Though all of the students are from Bridgeport, some had never before been to the park, said Brad McGuire, lead teacher for the 18 kindergartners.
McGuire said the swimming component is one of the most empowering parts of Horizons, which uses a pool at the nearby University of Bridgeport for swim lessons. Some of the children have gotten so proficient that they have been invited to a swim meet with Brunswick School in Greenwich.
“It’s a life skill that these kids really need,” said Jessica Dowling, a lifelong swimmer who joined her husband Sean, a Horizons board member, at the Swimabration.
The Old Greenwich couple, who met through swimming, challenged the children to water relay races and talked about their love of — and respect for — the water.
Now celebrating its fifth year, Horizons strives to overcome the achievement gap and protect against ‘summer slide’ in children when they’re not in the classroom each day. In addition to academics, the program emphasizes life skills and confidence-building activities, such as learning to swim.
Families pay a nominal application fee and the rest of the six-week program, which includes weekly field trips, is free.
Asked why they volunteer, Sean Dowling was quick to answer.
“It’s the kids,” he said. “This is the best opportunity to make a difference.”
For more information on Horizons, visit the websit e.
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