Tana Carson, swim instructor, goes over some swimming instructions with Key Largo School kindergartners on May 4 at Jacobs Aquatic Center in Key Largo. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Key Largo School kindergartners traded crayons and paper for goggles and swim suits as they left the classroom en route to Jacobs Aquatic Center pool earlier in the month.

A new Keys Kids Swim program gave each young pupil vital swimming and water safety skills in a span of five days — 45-minutes sessions per day with five American Red Cross-certified instructors. This free swimming instruction to KLS kindergartners was made possible by various community organizations. 

Some young swimmers had no problem jumping into the deep end, where they floated around with confidence. But for others, it was the first time they ever dipped their toes into the pool. And that brought some feelings of uncertainty.

“We’re trying to meet them where they’re at,” said Tana Carson, swim instructor for Keys Kids Swim. “Some kids are getting comfortable putting their face and lips in the water, and some are still overcoming their fears.”

An evaluation of the 60-plus kindergartners before lessons found that only 16% could save their lives if they fell in the water. Following a series of lessons, a total of 64 kindergartners had turned into better swimmers by time the program concluded on May 12. 

“They had to put their face in the water, kick and do big arms. It wasn’t just the doggy paddle,” said Darren Pais, KLS principal who helped transport kindergartners from the school to the pool. “You could see the difference from day one to day five. They were in the deep end, swimming and floating around.”

A program of this caliber was spearheaded by Florida Keys Kids, a consulting company focused on inclusive swimming and water safety programming. Since November, a group of dedicated community members convened with a mission to provide no-cost swimming lessons for students not only in kindergarten, but also through eighth grade. Keys Kids Swim is a collaboration among Jacobs Aquatic Center, Monroe County School District and Monroe County Parks and Beaches.

With the ocean, canals and pools surrounding young Keys kids, and statistics that show less than 50% of young kids know how to swim, the program equips young learners with the skills they need to feel comfortable in the water. 

“This is vitally important because drowning is the leading cause of fatalities in our youth,” said Jim “Doc” Boilini, who represents the Upper Keys Community Pool and Jacobs Aquatic Center. 

Carson said the kindergartners learned the full gamut in the pool — everything from face in the water to flip turns. Carson, a Keys kid herself, spent the majority of her time with beginners in the shallow end during day four of the program. 

“The community support has been amazing,” she said, adding that the likes of Holly Merrill Raschein, a county commissioner, and Sue Woltanski, a school board member, visited to see the program in action. 

John Allen, parks and beaches director, is a certified water instructor who spent time in the pool with the young swimmers. He took a group of seasoned kids to the deep end to teach floating and swimming techniques during day four of the program.

“To get to this point and start a program like this is unbelievable,” Allen said. “Seeing how much they’ve advanced and grown with confidence, this program is making a huge impact.” 

Keys Children’s Foundation, First Horizon Bank, Monroe County Board of County Commissioners, Quiescence Diving Services, Doc’s Diner, Regan Roth Insurance and Kenny and Stephanie Channels also provided vital support. 

Merrill Raschein said she’s a proponent of a swim program like Keys Kids Swim.

“This is a culmination of the right people at the right time with a common goal to better our community and make our children safer,” she said. 

Woltanski said it’s a program she’s been hoping and dreaming for ever since her two children were little. 

“There are so many fantastic opportunities to explore the environment, but when they can’t swim, they’re limited on what they can do,” she said. 

Supplying critical swim skills and techniques up and down the island chain is the program’s larger goal. Boilini said they’d like to put every kindergartner in the Keys, totaling more than 500, through the program.

“To the best of my knowledge, the number of free countywide ‘learn-to-swim’ programs for kids in kindergarten in any state is rare,” Boilini said. 

Swim instructors included Carson, Allen, Kirrin Peart, John Frank, Kim Musumeci, and Sue Marcetti.

KLS students in grades 1 through 8 can obtain free swimming lessons by contacting the Monroe County Parks & Beaches department at 305-453-8808. Lessons will go from June 1 through Aug. 30.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.