Four years ago, life changed abruptly one day for two families in Miami Gardens, Fla., when a two-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy were involved in separate pool accidents. Both incidents happened at the same time on the same block. The little girl survived, while the little boy unfortunately passed away due to drowning.
Bridget L. McKinney, a mother of three, an American Red Cross training provider and a volunteer member of the Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council remembers that day quite accurately.
“I offered swimming lessons for children at no cost every summer during a six- year period, but then I had to stop for three years due to my busy schedule as a middle school principal. When I heard on the news that a kid almost drowned and another one did not survive, I knew it was my wake-up call to continue my work,” says McKinney, now a District Supervisor for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
She approached both families to assist them in any way possible and listen to their stories. The girl’s mother told her that her daughter was playing with other kids in the front yard in everyone’s sight when she slipped out from the group and ended up in the backyard where the pool was located.
When the family finally found her, she was at the bottom of the pool, not moving. Her grandfather jumped in and pulled her out after four minutes of being inside the water.
McKinney learned that the boy was at home with his grandmother and other siblings when he opened the back door that was unlatched and fell into the pool unnoticed for 15 minutes.
Both kids were taken to the same hospital. The girl arrived unconscious but made a full recovery and was released after a week. The boy was not as lucky.
“I discovered two things after speaking with both families: there was no swimming program in the area, and it is not enough to teach kids how to swim in order to prevent accidents like this one from happening,” says McKinney.
Her findings led her to start thinking of a program that combined swimming lessons with water safety education so that parents could safeguard their kids in and around water and know what to do in case of a life-threatening emergency.
As Bridget got closer to the Miami Gardens community as a result of the two pool accidents, she found out that many parents didn’t take their kids to swimming lessons because there was only one pool open for service in the area, which caused overcrowding. To her awe, there were several fully built pools in Miami Gardens, yet nobody was using them.
“That was very odd to me. As a child I always had access to swimming lessons, so I didn’t understand why this wasn’t a priority nowadays. I started to advocate in order to get these pools open and accessible for everyone,” says McKinney, who was a lifeguard, water safety instructor, pool manager and aquatics director in Carol City before pursuing degrees in communications and education.
Parents not only had limited access to pools but were unable to afford swimming lessons. “I wanted to take the ‘money’ excuse out of their hands, so I started reaching out to sponsors and people who helped me out with my idea,” says McKinney.
After attending several community meetings, talking to a lot of people and finding the perfect pool in Opa-locka to run her program, she founded Professionals Sharing with a Purpose, or P-SWAP, where she, alongside other members, has taught more than 100 children ages one to 14 to swim and safeguard their lives while in water at no cost.
P-SWAP partners with the Red Cross as an official Licensed Training Provider, meaning it utilizes the Red Cross training curriculum for the swimming lessons it provides. Through P-SWAP, McKinney’s hard and consistent work has been key to opening more and more pools across Miami-Dade County to reach more kids.
"I have a gift to teach kids and I love it. It was like my ministry. Most people go to church and do community service, that was my service. I had a gift, a skill and this is my way to give back."
To register for swimming lessons, lifeguarding or instructor courses, water safety and dry-land classes like CPR/AED/First Aid, babysitter’s training and much more, visit redcross.org/take-a-class or learn more about Learn-to-swim providers.
Written by Diana Bello Aristizábal