Swim For Your Life

Swim Safe for Life, a free program started by two Mt. Lebanon High School volunteers, teaches young children how to be safe in the water. Winter sessions are starting in March.

Here’s one difference between entrepreneurism and altruism: Entrepreneurs, even young ones, dream of going on Shark Tank to strike a deal and strike it rich; altruists dream of doing well by doing good.

Sometimes, the altruists just need a friendly neighborhood swimming pool, not a shark tank, along with big hearts, good friends and a worthy mission.

Kelsey Cadahia and Madeline Snyder are juniors at Mt. Lebanon High School and the coordinators of what they hope becomes a legacy initiative to make sure children are water-safe regardless of whether their parents can afford swim lessons.

Both girls grew up swimming competitively and have lifeguard certification. Snyder swims for the high school team. Both have part-time jobs as learn-to-swim instructors.

“We saw that we were really making a difference there,” Cadahia says of teaching youngsters. “All the kids were learning how to swim really quickly. Then we thought about all the families that couldn’t afford that financially, so we wanted to make something that was accessible to lower-income families. We don’t even frame it as learning to swim. Of course, that’s the end goal, but it’s just basic water safety skills that some people don’t have access to.”

For eight Saturdays at 1 p.m., Cadahia, Snyder and several of their swim team and swim instructor friends kind enough to volunteer work with children in the non-lap portion of the high school pool. The Mt. Lebanon Aqua Club donates the pool time, and lifeguards are on duty.

The girls came up with the idea last winter, and Swim Safe for Life premiered last spring and returned this past fall. A new spring session starts in March.

Cadahia and Snyder got immediate validation when they started hearing from grateful parents, such as a single mom whose three children went to a pool with their grandparents once a month, something that made the mother’s heart race.

The Swim Safe for Life sessions are free and open to all families who struggle to afford paid swim lessons, although Cadahia and Snyder operate on the honor system and don’t check income levels.

A typical session starts with instructors and children sitting in a circle next to the pool for a short discussion on basic safety, things as simple as not running on the pool deck because it can be slippery.

When it’s time to enter the water, some children are enthusiastic. Others are a little reluctant. Some scream in terror. All get one-on-one attention from an instructor, so no waiting around for their turn. A platform that sits on the pool bottom provides a small area that is extra shallow for them to stand.

Depending on each child’s ability—and willingness—the instruction might start as simply as sitting on the edge and kicking the water with their feet, then move on to having a little water splashed on their cheeks. Or it might be getting right in and using a kickboard to do a full lap with an instructor tagging along.

“We had one kid who showed up every single week. He was dedicated,” Snyder says. “The first time he got in, he wouldn’t stand up by himself. He was crying the whole time. And then the last time he was so excited he invited us to his birthday party.”

Before one session last fall, 4-year-old Abigail twice looked dubiously at the water, then told her father, “It looks deep.” Her father, Frank Mannella, reassured her. Abigail is involved in various activities, which can get
expensive, but water safety is important to her father.

Lifeguards and swim instructors Madelyn Snyder, left, and Kelsey Cadahia, started a program for teaching young children water safety. They hope other swimmers will keep the program going after they graduate next year.

“I want her to be active,” says Mannella, who lives in Brookline and is a Pittsburgh firefighter. He heard about the lessons from his sister. “I was a lifeguard at the wave pool at South Park. I grew up around water, but it’s hard for me to give her instructions. Sometimes it’s easier coming from somebody else. I just hope she has fun and gets over her fear.”

Most kids who show up are ages 2-9, but some are younger. In the fall, Marialejandra Contreras of Mt. Lebanon brought her son, Aaron, 21 months, after learning about Swim Safe for Life on Facebook.
Aaron pretty quickly was putting his head underwater.

“I’m going to feel more safe,” Contreras says. “The first day, the first time, he cried. And now he feels more comfortable. Look at him. He’s happy.

“It’s so important for people who don’t have the opportunity to pay for classes. For us, it’s great to have this opportunity. It’s amazing that it’s kids in high school (running it). I’m really glad to participate.”

Cadahia and Snyder hope to eventually pass the program on to younger swim team members.

“I think it’s something that should keep on going while we’re away at college,” Cadahia says. “We don’t want it to stop here.”

The program is on Instagram and Facebook, Swim Safe for Life. A web page and flyers are in the works, which will eclipse last year’s handwritten “FREE SWIM LESSONS” notices on notebook paper. Cadahia and Snyder have emailed some day care facilities and have reached out to Mt. Lebanon elementary schools and Boys and Girl Clubs to spread the word.

“It’s just been so rewarding,” Cadahia says.

Those interested can email for more information: mtlebanonswimlessons@gmail.com

Photos by Linda Hackett