By Kami-Leigh Agard
According to 24-year-old Unique Lopez, when she signed up for Rising Tide Effect’s Swim Safety Corps (SSC) through NYC Department of Youth and Community Development’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), at first, she thought it sounded too good to be true. However, after six weeks in the earn-as-you learn pilot program, and facing graduation today, Thursday, August 17—from honing her swimming skills, obtaining CPR certification, being introduced to meditation and mindfulness, financial literacy classes, careers in the blue economy, including becoming a NYC lifeguard and working for NYC Ferry, kayaking, sailing, surfing and more—Lopez said she’s determined to see the program expand from a summer pilot to year round.
On July 11, The Public Housing Community Fund, in partnership with non-profit organization, Rising Tide Effect (RTE), and SYEP, launched the first-of-its kind New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Swim Safety Corps program. The six-week pilot program for youth ages 16 to 24 living in NYCHA communities, prepared participants for the NYC Parks’ Lifeguard Training Program, provided lifesaving and swimming skills, as well as exposure to career pathways in the “blue” (aquatic) economy.
For RTE founder, Kaitlin Krause, this pilot program was an avenue to expound on her organization’s mission to eliminate death by drowning, particularly in underserved socioeconomic regions and groups that are most vulnerable. Several teens have fallen victim to Rockaway’s powerful rip currents in recent years. Statistics show drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental injury-related childhood death. The USA Swimming Foundation reports 64% of black children possess little to no swimming skills, and among Hispanic kids, the number stands at 45%.
For Krause, in addition to teaching critical water safety skills, the Swim Safety Program was also designed to give young people in underserved communities an opportunity to build awareness and understanding of their mind, body, and soul, while unlocking their potential to create a life of wholeness, where they can share their greatness with the world.
Krause said, “Only when we get our mind, body and soul in alignment, can we really build and rebuild ourselves, and evolve. For example, understanding the connectedness of how mental stress may manifest itself in a tight neck—making those links and showing how everything is connected to perspective and mindset. So, only when we holistically provide all of the components for growth that way, can our students really step into their full potential.
“It’s almost like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Each door the students unlocked, opened them up to a new world, where everything, including the scale of things, is different. They walk through that door and now they see that there are skills to be learned, like how to be a leader, how to follow directions and how to be responsible with your time. This new world of possibilities was unlocked, and it’s theirs to do nothing or everything with to unlock their true potential.”
Some of the growth-inspired courses the youth were introduced to were financial literacy, mapping out a five-year plan, resume writing, becoming a coach or leader, breath work, nutrition, mind/body and movement connection, environmental solutions and skills of the trade, marine rescue drills, daily swimming lessons, surfing, kayaking and more.
Other highlights include a Rockaway Labyrinth-By-The-Sea walk with its founder, Dr. Nancy Gahles, a tour of NYC Ferry’s Central Command, a talk about body positivity, inclusivity, and water safety awareness with professional mermaid, Mermaid Chè Monique, star of the new Netflix docuseries, “MerPeople,” and meeting Andréanna Seymore, executive producer of the docuseries. Also, the Public Housing Community Fund provided a laptop to each participant and a swim kit, plus, Cuisine By Claudette sponsored free lunches.
For Lopez, who is almost done with getting her G.E.D., the program taught her many skills and exposed her to new possibilities.
“I looked at the program as more than just a job, but an opportunity. The experiences I was exposed to in the program, I’ve never had before in my life. Like, I went on the ferry for the first time, and got to visit the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’m actually trying to promote this program everywhere I go, so we can have it going all year round because I really like it and I think it would be a good opportunity for young kids to join, to have something to do on the side besides school,” Lopez said.
As for her swimming capabilities, she perked up. “I would say before the program, my comfort level in the water was about 30%. Now, I am definitely more confident. Just some little things that I still have to work on, but I’m comfortable now, even in the ocean. As long as I have a surfboard as my floating device, I’ll be good. I just won’t go out too far. I really want to get into surfing. Who would have thought?” Lopez shared.
According to Krause, it’s youth like Lopez who drives her mission to bring water safety and the opportunities that water can bring to underserved communities.
She said, “Water became my teacher, and helped me heal after a very serious shoulder injury in college. It also helped me get through the hardest time in my life. I used to be a competitive swimmer and I loved the sport. I had a full ride to college to swim, and then as I got older, my relationship to water had to change because I wasn’t able to swim fast anymore, and I wasn’t in college.
“And now, I get into the real world and being all these years in the industry, it’s unacceptable to me that because of socioeconomic hardships, some people will never have the access to learn a life skill and experience the water. And I am driven by my intentions. I truly believe that swimming can change the world and unite humanity.
“Swimming is a mechanism that supports physical, mental and emotional growth, and it also provides a framework for personal development that was instrumental to me growing up as a kid. I’ve seen how it’s helped me and my teammates growing up.”
Since Krause founded Rising Tide Effect in 2020, more than 150 youth have learned how to swim in an initiative she spearheaded with The Rockaway Hotel at their pool. One of her first group of students was from St. John’s Residence For Boys.
For more information about RTE and to donate towards expanding their Swim Safety Corps program and other youth water safety initiatives, visit: https://www.risingtideeffect.org/