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by Thomas Neumann

March 25, 2019

Program in San Francisco receives grant from the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation

San Francisco is a city bordered by water on three sides. It’s a place where the culture and character have been shaped by its seafaring history.

But even in a place where the very fabric of the community has been largely influenced by the ocean and the bay, there are many people who haven’t been given a chance to enjoy the benefits of an aquatic lifestyle.

With that in mind, Kate Eaneman, a 28-year-old associate aquatics director with the Presidio YMCA, wants to make a difference for at-risk young adults who might not otherwise get the opportunity. Thanks to a grant from the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, the Presidio Y is preparing to offer adult learn-to-swim classes for 18- to 21-year-olds in the foster care system. (Presidio Y is one of nearly 70 adult swim-lesson programs that received 2019 grants from the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation.)

“They’re kind of a unique opportunity when it comes to outreach, because although they’re legally adults, they’re still dependent on the foster care system,” Eaneman says. “They may be going to school. They may be disabled or they may be working part time, but they may not necessarily be independent enough to live on their own.”

Foster care youths can easily slip through the cracks in the social system. They often go through multiple residential placements, which creates significant social obstacles. Consequently, it’s a group that faces risks and challenges at a much higher rate than the general population. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, approximately 50 percent of youths who have aged out of the foster care system have chronic physical health conditions, and more than 50 percent experience mental illness.

Foster youths are a group close to Eaneman’s heart. Outside of her work at the Presidio Y, she volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate in the foster care system. In that role, she establishes stable personal relationships with the young adults and advocates for their best interests.

She believes that introducing them to a swimming lifestyle will help them make friends and allow them to feel like they’re part of a community. They’ll learn to swim in an age-appropriate setting, without the embarrassment of being grouped with young children simply because they’re inexperienced in the water. The hope is that the skills they learn and the bonds they form through the class can help build a personal foundation for social success, with employment possibilities down the road as well.

“Swimming can be a gateway to so many opportunities for making friends and employment,” says Eaneman, a member of the YMCA Pacific Aquatic Club. “Lifeguards and swim instructors make great wages, especially if you’re an entry-level employee, and it’s such an untapped market. I think this is a great program idea because everyone wins. And it’s not just charity; it’s reciprocal.”

The program is currently in the recruitment phase. Eaneman is getting the word out through social workers, independent-living skills coordinators, nonprofit organizations, and job fairs.

One of the first instructors Eaneman enlisted was Nicole Toriggino, a 30-year-old pediatric nurse who swam at Las Lomas High in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Diablo Valley College in neighboring Pleasant Hill.

This won’t be Toriggino’s first time teaching adults to swim. She previously instructed at an adult learn-to-swim class in Walnut Creek, where she helped a septuagenarian overcome a longtime fear of the water. Seeing the steady progress and genuine gratitude of that pupil made a lasting impression.

Not surprising given her line of work, Toriggino has a soft spot for children and young adults—especially those who are underprivileged. So, the opportunity to help clients in the foster system is a cause she supports without hesitation.

“I’m super-passionate about kids,” Toriggino says. “I can step in and help at-risk kids or ones who might be under the radar or need someone to advocate for them.”

Another instructor Eaneman recruited is Elizabeth Pezzello, a 29-year-old administrative assistant who moved to San Francisco about a year ago. Pezzello, who swam at Fox Lane High in Bedford, N.Y., and College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, says she cherishes the life skills and foundation for success that she learned through swimming. She hopes the young adults who take the class will feel some of that same empowerment and stick with the sport for years to come.

“I think swimming is something that anyone can do,” says Pezzello, an unattached member in the Pacific LMSC. “Even if your stroke isn’t perfect, even if you’re not the fastest, that’s not what matters. Showing them that swimming can be fun is the primary goal. It will be challenging, but it will be fun.”

Speaking from her previous adult learn-to-swim teaching experience, Toriggino says it’s important for students to know they will be in a comfortable environment with patient instructors where they can proceed at their own pace without pressure. The goal is to give them the skills to be safe in the water, and hopefully, to spark a long-term love for the sport.

“We want to get them comfortable in the water and get them confident with the technique,” Pezzello says.

Ultimately, Toriggino hopes the foster clients who take the class will be uplifted and motivated as they begin to see the myriad ways swimming can improve their quality of life. It just might turn out to be a pivotal moment in someone’s personal development.

“To be able to be safe and comfortable in the water is such a great skill for anybody,” Toriggino says. “It boosts people’s confidence so much, and I think this is a group that can really benefit from that.”


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • ALTS