‘Life-saving skills’: UNC’s Dive In offers free swim lessons to North Carolina families 

UNC-Chapel Hill’s student-run organization, Dive In, has been offering free swim lessons to children from families who face language or economic barriers for over a decade. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Manthey.

 COMMUNITY NEWS

By Isabella Reilly
UNC Media Hub Student Corresondent

It’s loud at the pool on Sundays. Laughter and the sounds of splashing water echo off the walls at Bowman Gray Memorial Pool as children and their families shuffle in at 12:55 p.m.

With a few minutes to spare, kids in colorful bathing suits grab pool noodles and kick off their plastic sandals before getting into the water alongside student volunteers. Beads of sweat drip down the faces of families, who proudly watch their children learn how to swim from the sidelines at Bowman Gray anyway, despite the heat.

Chapel Hill resident Salvador Sandoval, who never learned to swim, began bringing his oldest child to UNC-Chapel Hill’s student-run organization, Dive In (formerly Carolina Swim Clinic), 11 years ago.

A student volunteer guides a child through swimming techniques at Bowman Gray Memorial Pool in 2014. According to the CDC, drowning is the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Manthey.

Since then, all four of his children have learned how to swim because of the campus club—which offers free swim lessons to children from families who face language and economic barriers. Lessons are held every Sunday during UNC-CH’s fall and spring semesters from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Dive In co-president Ian Jaras Salas said the club aims to provide a fun environment for the kids and increase public safety. Jaras Salas said the club holds about nine to 10 lessons a semester for kids typically aged 4-14.

“Not only is (swimming) good for exercise, but it’s also a good life skill that can save you and others if needed,” said Jaras Salas, a UNC-CH junior from Wilmington, North Carolina.

Sandoval, translated by Jaras Salas, said that because of Dive In, he no longer worries about traveling with his kids, adding that he can trust them to keep themselves safe in the water.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, in households like Sandoval’s where a parent doesn’t know how to swim, children only have a 19% chance of learning themselves. The foundation also reported that in the U.S., 45% of Hispanic and Latino children and 64% of African American children have little to no swimming ability.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent study by the CDC found that national drowning trends disproportionately affect racial minorities. The study found that Hispanic children aged 10-14 are 1.4 times more likely to drown in a pool than their white counterparts. For Hispanic children aged 15-19, that figure jumps to 1.7.

Catherine Ayers, aquatics director at UNC-CH and faculty advisor for Dive In, believes the club helps fight against these national trends. She added that the program provides “potentially life-saving skills” to children in the community.

And it’s not exclusive to families from the Triangle, said Foster Hager, a co-president of Dive In. She said that some parents commute up to an hour each week to bring their children to the pool.

“I didn’t expect that when I joined the club,” said Hager, a UNC-CH senior from Apex, North Carolina. “I thought it would be (families) from the Chapel Hill area, but people do travel far for this. That’s cool to see, but also discouraging that there aren’t more resources out there.”

Diving in

In 2013, Jonathan Manthey, Holly Sowinski and Ryan Trocinski—the club’s three original founders—noticed something lacking in the Chapel Hill community.

Friends beforehand, the then-UNC-CH sophomores decided to enroll in an APPLES Service-Learning Spanish course together. Manthey said the semester-long class required 30 volunteer hours in which teams could join an existing service organization or design a new one. The group, he said, chose the latter.

Club co-founder Holly Sowinski stands at the pool’s sidelines with Dive In families in September 2014. Sowinski said that her background in swimming made her confident that she could provide lessons to children in the community. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Manthey.

Manthey said that while the team knew they wanted to incorporate the Spanish language into their new organization, they also wanted to contribute to the greater community positively.

“There’s more to Chapel Hill than just (UNC),” Manthey said. “We wanted to be a part of this community.”

The only problem was they had no idea where to begin.

Trocinski said the team did not realize they shared a background in the sport of swimming. He added that the friends started thinking about how access to learning and joining sports teams largely rely on a family’s finances.

“Basically, the conversation was, ‘Can you imagine how intimidating it would be to be a 6-year-old invited to a pool party and never have had the chance to swim before?’” Trocinski said.

He and Sowonski—who both volunteered at an English as a second language (ESL) club for adults at a Carrboro elementary school—said that the more they realized how limited pool access was for the local Spanish-speaking community, the more the group noticed an immediate need.

With their combined swimming backgrounds, Sowinski said the team was confident in their ability to teach swim lessons. They settled on the idea for a free swim clinic to serve families in the area who lacked adequate access to youth swimming lessons.

The next step, Sowinski said, was finding volunteers who were willing to give up an hour of their Sunday afternoons. Flyers went up in the pool locker rooms. They tracked down university club swimmers and talked the ears off of the club water polo team. That first year, Sowinski said the team was looking for anyone already familiar with teaching swim lessons, regardless of Spanish-speaking ability.

Seven people answered their call that first year, Sowinski said. After the semester ended, the group decided to continue providing lessons as an officially recognized student organization. By the time the trio graduated, the club had 35 volunteers.

Manthey said that his favorite part of the club was witnessing the growth and increased confidence not only in the children, but in their parents, and within himself, too.

“It was awesome to see them develop and their own skill sets develop,” Manthey said.

Keep swimming

Before the pandemic, Ayers, who became the club’s faculty advisor in 2015, said that Dive In started to evolve significantly.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, Dive In won the Kenan-Biddle Partnership Grant, which awards up to $5,000 in funding to projects that strengthen or establish collaborations between UNC-CH and Duke.

In fall of 2018, the club officially switched from Carolina Swim Clinic to Dive In. Ayers said the change was so the program could open a second chapter at Duke University. She added, “They didn’t want to have a Carolina Swim Clinic at Duke.”

“They were really running strong,” Ayers said of the club’s then-volunteers. “They were very motivated and driven to grow the program.”

In 2019, Ayers said student volunteers began offering educational opportunities for parents to attend while their children learned to swim such as English as a second language and financial literacy courses.

But when the pandemic hit, Ayers said, she was initially worried Dive In wouldn’t survive.

“We lost a lot of programs,” she said. “After the pandemic, many student organizations didn’t have the support, motivation or desire to keep it going forward. I was really glad that Dive In wasn’t one of them.”

It wasn’t easy, Ayers said. She added that it felt like students were forced to “start over” when they began offering swim lessons again in September 2021.

“They were having to figure it out from scratch because it wasn’t handed down anymore,” Ayers said. “Outgoing officers weren’t training incoming officers anymore. They were starting from a dead stop and having to figure out how to get it going again.”

Though restarting post-pandemic might not have been easy, Dive In volunteer Courtney Parrish said she can’t imagine a better way to spend her Sunday afternoons.

Parrish, a UNC-CH sophomore who joined the club in the fall of 2022, said she believes volunteers get as much out of the experience as the kids and their families do.

“So many of the kids that come would not get swim lessons otherwise,” Parrish said.

Parrish said that the kids tend to work with the same volunteer each week during the semester, adding that Dive In is always looking for new volunteers regardless of Spanish-speaking ability. 

Co-president Jaras Salas said that though his primary motivation for returning each week is his commitment to the program’s families, the club has allowed him to stay involved in something he loves.

“I grew up on the water basically my whole life,” Jaras Salas said. “… Here in Chapel Hill, I didn’t have that anymore. (Dive In) serves as a way for me to stay doing something I very much enjoy while helping others and seeing them progress.”

For co-president Hager, said she believes learning to swim is “more important than knowing how to ride a bike.”

“Swimming is so important,” Hager said. “Whether it’s language barriers or economic barriers that are preventing families from bringing their kids to swim lessons, we want to take that barrier away.”

As for Dive In parent Sandoval, he said he is grateful for the program and hopes it only continues to grow.

Volunteers and their swimmers exit the water promptly at 2 p.m. on Sundays. By 2:01 p.m., a few more high-fives are exchanged as families start to leave, their children barefoot, smiling, carrying their flip-flops up the stairs.

It’s hot at the pool, but on Sundays, the Sandovals and other families of Dive In will return, parents cheering their children on from the sidelines, anyway.

Since then, all four of his children have learned how to swim because of the campus club—which offers free swim lessons to children from families who face language and economic barriers. Lessons are held every Sunday during UNC-CH’s fall and spring semesters from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Dive In co-president Ian Jaras Salas said that the club aims to not only provide a fun environment for the kids, but to increase public safety. The club holds about nine to 10 lessons a semester, Jaras Salas said, for kids typically aged 4-14.

“Not only is (swimming) good for exercise, but it’s also a good life skill that can save you and others if needed,” said Jaras Salas, a UNC-CH junior from Wilmington, North Carolina.

Sandoval, translated by Jaras Salas, said that because of Dive In, he no longer worries about traveling with his kids, adding that he can trust them to keep themselves safe in the water.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, in households like Sandoval’s where a parent doesn’t know how to swim, children only have a 19% chance of learning themselves. The foundation also reported that in the U.S., 45% of Hispanic and Latino children and 64% of African American children have little to no swimming ability.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent study by the CDC found that national drowning trends disproportionately affect racial minorities. The study found that Hispanic children aged 10-14 are 1.4 times more likely to drown in a pool than their white counterparts. For Hispanic children aged 15-19, that figure jumps to 1.7.

Catherine Ayers, aquatics director at UNC-CH and faculty advisor for Dive In, said that she believes the club helps fight against these national trends. She added that the program provides “potentially life-saving skills” to children in the community.

And it’s not exclusive to families from the Triangle, said Foster Hager, a co-president of Dive In. She said that some parents commute up to an hour each week to bring their children to the pool.

“I didn’t expect that when I joined the club,” said Hager, a UNC-CH senior from Apex, North Carolina. “I thought it would be (families) from the Chapel Hill area, but people do travel far for this. That’s cool to see, but also discouraging that there aren’t more resources out there.”

Diving in

In 2013, Jonathan Manthey, Holly Sowinski and Ryan Trocinski—the club’s three original founders—noticed something lacking in the Chapel Hill community.

Friends beforehand, the then-UNC-CH sophomores decided to enroll in an APPLES Service-Learning Spanish course together. Manthey said the semester-long class required 30 volunteer hours in which teams could join an existing service organization or design a new one. The group, he said, chose the latter.

Manthey said that while the team knew they wanted to incorporate the Spanish language into their new organization, they also wanted to positively contribute to the greater community.

“There’s more to Chapel Hill than just (UNC),” Manthey said. “We wanted to be a part of this community.”

The only problem was they had no idea where to begin.

Trocinski said the team did not realize they shared a background in the sport of swimming. He added that the friends started thinking about how access to learning and joining sports teams largely rely on a family’s finances.

“Basically the conversation was, ‘Can you imagine how intimidating it would be to be a 6-year-old invited to a pool party, and never had the chance to swim before?’” Trocinski said.

He and Sowonski—who both volunteered at an English as a second language (ESL) club for adults at a Carrboro elementary school—said that the more they realized how limited pool access was for the local Spanish-speaking community, the more the group noticed an immediate need.

With their combined swimming backgrounds, Sowinski said the team was confident in their ability to teach swim lessons. They settled on the idea for a free swim clinic to serve families in the area who lacked adequate access to youth swimming lessons.

The next step, Sowinski said, was finding volunteers who were willing to give up an hour of their Sunday afternoons. Flyers went up in the pool locker rooms. They tracked down university club swimmers and talked the ears off of the club water polo team. That first year, Sowinski said the team was looking for anyone already familiar with teaching swim lessons, regardless of Spanish-speaking ability.

Seven people answered their call that first year, Sowinski said. After the semester ended, the group decided to continue providing lessons as an officially recognized student organization. By the time the trio graduated, the club had 35 volunteers.

Manthey said that his favorite part of the club was witnessing the growth and increased confidence not only in the children, but in their parents, and within himself, too.

“It was awesome to be able to see them develop and see their own skill sets develop,” Manthey said.

Keep swimming

Before the pandemic, Ayers, who became the club’s faculty advisor in 2015, said that Dive In started to evolve significantly.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, Dive In won the Kenan-Biddle Partnership Grant, which awards up to $5,000 in funding to projects that strengthen or establish collaborations between UNC-CH and Duke.

In fall of 2018, the club officially switched from Carolina Swim Clinic to Dive In. The change, Ayers said, was so that the program could open a second chapter at Duke University. She added, “They didn’t want to have a Carolina Swim Clinic at Duke.”

“They were really running strong,” Ayers said of the club’s then-volunteers. “They were very motivated and driven to grow the program.”

In 2019, Ayers said student volunteers began offering educational opportunities for parents to attend while their children learned to swim such as English as a second language and financial literacy courses.

But when the pandemic hit, Ayers said, she was initially worried Dive In wouldn’t survive.

“We lost a lot of programs,” she said. “After the pandemic, many student organizations didn’t have the support, motivation or desire to keep it going forward. I was really glad that Dive In wasn’t one of them.”

It wasn’t easy, Ayers said. She added that it felt like students were forced to “start over” when they began offering swim lessons again in September 2021.

“They were having to figure it out from scratch because it wasn’t handed down anymore,” Ayers said. “Outgoing officers weren’t training incoming officers anymore. They were starting from a dead stop and having to figure out how to get it going again.”

Though it might not have been easy to restart post-pandemic, Dive In volunteer Courtney Parrish said can’t imagine any better way to spend her Sunday afternoons.

Parrish, a UNC-CH sophomore who joined the club in the fall of 2022, said she believes volunteers get as much out of the experience as the kids and their families do.

“So many of the kids that come would not get swim lessons otherwise,” Parrish said.

Parrish said that the kids tend to work with the same volunteer each week during the semester, adding that Dive In is always looking for new volunteers regardless of Spanish-speaking ability. 

Co-president Jaras Salas said that though his primary motivation for returning each week is his commitment to the program’s families, the club has allowed him to stay involved in something he loves.

“I grew up on the water basically my whole life,” Jaras Salas said. “… Here in Chapel Hill, I didn’t have that anymore. (Dive In) serves as a way for me to stay doing something I very much enjoy while helping others and seeing them progress.”

For co-president Hager, she said she believes learning to swim is “more important than knowing how to ride a bike.”

“Swimming is so important,” Hager said. “Whether it’s language barriers or economic barriers that are preventing families from bringing their kids to swim lessons, we want to take that barrier away.”

As for Dive In parent Sandoval said he is grateful for the program and hopes it only continues to grow.

Volunteers and their swimmers exit the water promptly at 2 p.m. on Sundays. By 2:01 p.m., a few more high-fives are exchanged as families start to leave, their children barefoot, smiling, carrying their flip-flops up the stairs.

It’s hot at the pool, but on Sundays, the Sandovals and other families of Dive In will return, parents cheering their children on from the sidelines, anyway.


NC Media Hub is a collection of Hussman School of Media and Journalism students who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. TLR is proud to support the UNC Media Hub student correspondents and photographers.

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