How could a day of fun and family become a nightmare? I witnessed one such afternoon in Rio Claro, close to my native Medellin, when a school outing became tragic as three of the boys in the group got caught in an underwater vortex and drowned, no one even noticed their distress.

The news about the teens who died in Shreveport, Louisiana, jostled my memories, even more shockingly since I had just blogged about the thrill of the outdoors and what lurks beneath the water, which is never easy to predict. It is so confusing to hear that these children were there with their families, hoping to enjoy an outing in the river and escape the unforgiving heat of Louisiana. What makes this tragedy so hard to understand is the unbelievable fact that many of the adults did not know how to swim, and when one of the teens fell into deep water, his cousins and then more relatives tried to help him, but none of them could swim. A total of six teens drowned. Only one teen was successfully rescued by a passerby who fortunately, had learned to swim as a child.

Unbelievably, the lack of the basic skill of swimming was what prevented these families from saving their loved ones. This unforgettable August second loss of young, promising lives, highlights the shocking statistics: 69% of African-American children have little or no swimming ability. This is apparently a result of fear, parents who did not have access to swimming pools or instruction during childhood, perhaps because of segregation, do not realize how their own fear of water is curtailing their own children’s access to an essential life skill.

I had just read abundant articles denouncing the excess of summer vacation. Can’t we institute programs or neighborhood campaigns to teach the children who have too much time on their hands during the lazy days of summer not only to swim, but valuable life skills that schools are not teaching and which used to be taught at home. Sadly, in many of today’s households, led by single mothers or two working parents, many basic life skills are just not being passed on to the new generations.

I have two more years with my oldest child at home. I have a list of skills I want to cover with her before she leaves. Yesterday, she pumped gas all by herself, under my watchful eye. This week, we made rice and she has done the laundry sorting, washing and folding most of the summer. My son is my lawn man and landscaping is also his job, as well as helping with the cooking and dish washing. We have sewn buttons, we have picked up broken glass together and filled out a bank deposit slip and bought groceries and planned menus. And swimming was taken care of when they were toddlers. But our reality is hardly the norm.

It is easy to forget that not all children have parents or even friends around them making sure that they are being taught life skills to complement their standardized test knowledge and pop culture and media exposure. Out in the real world, young ones will still need to cook, balance a checkbook, buy food, sew buttons, swim in recreational and perhaps emergency situations, drive and voice their opinions or complaints clearly both orally and in written form. Are we making sure we transmit everything we have learned to our young ones? Is there something else we can do to make these life skills available to more children? Can an initiative like Motah and Cynthia Lee’s vision of a program for teens, by teens and with teens offer them a platform to exchange, learn and teach each other by example and with concrete real world stories?

These are lessons that can become matters of life and death. Could the simple knowledge of swimming have saved six lives yesterday? Absolutely, and today is the day to start doing something about it. Can you teach at least one child to swim or another valuable skill? We all need to wake up and realize this is not a family’s problem or an individual’s lack, it is a social oversight and today, when resources are much more abundant and we have the power of social media and technology to rally around a cause, we can do so much more, so much better!

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