While we keep our eyes trained on how to make healthy food and exercise accessible and affordable in Southeast Raleigh, the Alexander Family YMCA checked in on the activity meter.
The message: The Y is in full response mode with free swimming lessons and free or low-cost fitness classes at the area’s newest elementary school.
It hasn’t required any rocket-science formulas. The Y asked and listened, and now it’s giving people in the community what they said they want – places to be active, exercise and learn new skills as a family.
“We wanted to eliminate any blockers,” said Dexter Hebert, the Alexander Y’s associate executive director in Southeast Raleigh.
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Cost, transportation and childcare are all potential barriers to exercise, Hebert noted. “The data spoke to us, and we were able to create something the people wanted. It has been incredible.”
In the Swim for Life program, YMCA staff and volunteer instructors teach four free lessons during sessions in April, June and early fall at the Y’s InterAct building at 1012 Oberlin Road.
The next sessions are through Thursday at 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Classes are based on age and skill, and are open to anyone over 5.
Those who complete Swim for Life get a continued-learning voucher for six additional swim lessons at the Alexander Y on Hillsborough Street.
“Learning to swim should not be a luxury,” said Sara Click, director of administration at the Alexander Y.
When William Matthews signed up for Swim for Life, he brought his wife, Meisha, their two daughters, Kira, 11, and Madison, 5 – and his mother-in-law.
“We wanted to get the fundamentals down and get them down right,” Matthews said. “It was an awesome experience for us to go as a family, to support one another and be part of the community.”
The Swim for Life program is funded by the Y’s annual fall fundraising campaign.
To improve access for people who live in Southeast Raleigh, the Y provides transportation from Southgate and New Revelations Baptist Church off Davie Street, Click said.
She said the Y’s up-close community efforts through its afterschool, tutorial and summer program partnership at Walnut Creek Elementary School has “opened our eyes to some of the needs in the community.”
That includes a bird’s eye view of disproportionate access to pools in Southeast Raleigh, which means opportunities to learn to swim are often rare.
Grim statistics define the consequence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of African-American youth and 60 percent of Latino children can’t swim.
Ultimately, black and Latino youth drown more often than white youth.
Two recent drowning deaths come to mind. Athens Drive High School graduate Braxton Horton drowned this month, just weeks after completing his freshman year at East Carolina University.
His death came on the heels of the death of Onslow County teen Shak Pershey, who drowned at Topsail Beach.
“All members of any community need to have access to the same health and wellness resources as anybody else,” Click said, adding that a goal is to put a full YMCA facility in Southeast Raleigh. “If they can’t get there, then we need to go to them.”
The same philosophy led to Walnut Creek Fitness.
As the Y’s community outreach coordinator in Southeast Raleigh, LeQuandra Ballen wanted to balance her professional duties in youth services and programs and her passion for education and social work with the Y’s overall focus on families and communities.
Two days each week, Alexander Y members can join free fitness classes at Walnut Creek Elementary off Rock Quarry Road. Anybody else can join the classes for $2, which includes childcare.
On Mondays, there’s hip-hop Zumba with a toning class afterwards. On Thursdays, there’s a traditional Zumba class with a salsa vibe. Both classes are from 6-7 p.m.
In four months, weekly participation has grown from around 80 to about 120 people in the fitness classes. On average, about 50 children are in childcare as part of the program.
Zumba, which is traditionally done to salsa-style music, has tapped into the growing Latina population in Southeast Raleigh, Ballen said.
“It was almost like a bonus,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re serving our true population.”
The community’s response will bring more classes, more variety and offerings throughout the summer.
“We’re opening even more doors,” Ballen said. “Southeast Raleigh has shown this is something they’re serious about.”