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In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the ability to swim is a basic survival skill that too many kids lack. So Hennepin County, for the first time ever, is spending $35,000 on swimming lessons for hundreds of kids who can't afford it.

The Greater Twin Cities YMCA — the county's biggest partner in the new endeavor — opened online sign-ups for free swim lessons this week at The Y hopes to offer free lessons to 600 kids this summer through the Hennepin County program.

The Y's new swim lesson curriculum, introduced this year, emphasizes survival techniques first and mastery of swimming mechanics later. The goal is making sure that kids finish their beginning lessons with the skills to float, tread in deep water and get out safely.

"Safety skills are now paramount," said Shannon Kinstler, YMCA senior aquatic director.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison is spearheading the swimming effort, unanimously approved by the rest of the board.

"Every year you hear the stories of children drowning. That's all you need to know," Callison said. "Too many kids drown, especially kids of color."

The drowning rate for black children ages 5 to 19 at swimming pools is more than five times higher than for white kids, according to a seminal study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

According to the nonprofit USA Swimming Foundation, which is helping administer the county funds, 70 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics have little to no swimming ability, compared with 40 percent of whites.

Investing in kids

For funding, county leaders are tapping the Hennepin County Youth Sports Program, created in 2009 with a portion of the Minnesota Twins' ballpark sales tax. Until now, the program has been used primarily to build and improve playing fields and buy sports equipment.

"I am thrilled we are now investing in people," Callison said. "They don't need to be Olympic swimmers. They just have to know how to keep their head above water."

Other partners include Robbinsdale public schools, the Brooklyn Center Community Center, Brooklyn Park Recreation and Parks and the Great Wolf Swim Club in Minneapolis.

The YMCA, which will receive about half of the Hennepin County funds, said free swimming lessons are just part of its broader campaign to expand water safety and swimming programs at the 24 Y locations with pools. Nearly 50,000 enrolled in either swimming or water safety classes at the Y last year.

Glen Gunderson, CEO of the Twin Cities Y, said that number still falls short. So new partners such as Hennepin County are welcome and needed, he said.

"The ultimate goal is, we want every child to be safe in and around water," Gunderson said. "We are committed to that as a fundamental goal."

The Y's mission takes on urgency as new families move to the metro area, he said.

"Our community is changing so fast," he said. "We have many newcomers and new Americans coming from environments where they are not in and around the water."

While adults unaccustomed to water simply avoid it, kids are inexplicably drawn to the ponds, lakes, streams and pools near every other street corner in Minnesota.

"Kids want to be next to the water, splash in it, test it out. If they don't have those basic water safety and survival skills, it's a recipe for disaster," Gunderson said.

'Teach through fun'

For school, community and youth groups, the YMCA already offers free abbreviated lessons as part of its Safety Around Water program. That program started in 2010 and has grown to 4,000 participants a year.

Kids learn to push off the bottom of the pool as they are submerging, so they can pop back up to the surface and turn to grab the side of the pool. They're also taught how to swim a short distance on their front, roll over on their back to rest, and then roll on their front to continue swimming to safety.

Fourth-graders from Lyndale Elementary School go through the program every spring. Their teacher, Drew Gau, was in the water Wednesday afternoon alongside the Y swim instructors as the kids finished up their fourth lesson. He said he believed many of his students would not have access to swimming lessons outside of this program.

Some of the students were holding back tears at the pool's edge before the first lesson, Gau said. On this day, however, most of them were smiling and seemed at ease as they practiced floating, paddling and pushing off the bottom.

Despite the shifting curriculum, swim instructors keep the kids' interest with a familiar formula. "We still teach through fun," Kinstler said. "We teach through games." 612-673-4804