Local swimming travels to Wilcannia to teach indigenous children to swim

Hayden Bousfield, one of our fantastic Learn To Swim staff, has just returned from Wilcannia in central NSW, having spent the past fortnight teaching swimming skills to the local indigenous community in a 2 week intensive program.
Wilcannia, near Broken Hill (if you call 195kms away near!), is home to 600 people, 520 of which are indigenous. The town is situated on the Darling river, in an environment which is borderline semi-arid to desert with an annual rainfall of just 255 millimetres, and where temperatures as high as 50 degrees celsius have been recorded. The river is where locals get relief from the heart, but the majority of residents can’t swim. In a generational problem, parents can’t swim, so kids don’t learn, and this dangerous situation is perpetuated. There is a local pool, however, no one is offering swimming lessons. The name Wilcannia is said to be derived from an Aboriginal term for ‘gap in the bank where floodwaters escape’ – which suggests a dangerous situation in itself.
One of the key objectives of the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2016-20, produced by the Australian Water Safety Council (AWSC), is to monitor and expand strategies to reduce drowning in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who continue to be over-represented in drowning statistics, accounting for 6% of all drowning deaths in the 11 financial years between 2004/05 and 2014/15. This is despite accounting for an estimated 3% of the Australian population, so it is obvious that focused drowning prevention strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are urgently required.
The principal of St Theresa’s Community School in Wilcannia, Paul McCabe, is trying to make a change and address the community’s lack of swimming ability. A family friend of Hayden’s, Mr McCabe approached him about the possibility of a 2 week intensive swimming program in Wilcannia, and a plan was hatched.
Hayden traveled to Wilcannia in mid February, and found a community in desperate need of swimming instruction. Swimming is one of the few sports the kids have in Wilcannia, with very few other sporting facilities available, however the public pool is under utilised due to a lack of swimming skills. The pool had a thick layer of thick bugs and live frogs, but once this was cleared, the pool was ready for lessons (apart from the bees and wasps flying overhead – Hayden was stung twice…..).
Hayden was then able to begin working with 28 Aboriginal children enrolled at the school, from 5 to 8 years old. He was both living and working at the school, doing maintenance, and helping in the classroom with reading, writing and maths in the mornings. In the afternoons, after lunch, students and teachers got on a bus and travelled to the public swimming pool for lessons. Swimming skills were varied from the outset, from nonexistent to very poor technique, with minimal distances being achieved. With a lifeguard present, Hayden worked for 10 afternoons kids, with the children divided into 5 groups of 5. By the end of the 2 weeks, the top 2 groups could freestyle with correct technique for 100 metres! The minimum level achieved was for the children to swim 25 meters and get themselves out of the pool – a huge improvement.
Hayden spoke of the challenges presented saying “It was all about filling the kids with confidence – despite being keen to learn, many would get to chest deep and just freak out, and run to the edge or steps of the pool. Some of the children were pretty wild, so it was hard to calm some of the children once they panicked, and difficult to bring them back into the lesson. Sometimes, it was challenging to get them into a lesson in the first place, and continue the lesson for a 15 min blocks”. Hayden added “For instance, the kids would decide they were cold (it was 40 degrees outside, but cooler in the water under the shade sail), so they would get out of the pool and lie in the sun to warm up, telling me ‘We are being lizards!’ We had meltdowns, very colorful language, and I came away with many new insults, many of which I couldn’t previously imagine! But they were all gorgeous kids, colourful characters, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat”.
It seems the children enjoyed it too – interestingly, the swimming program also helped enormously with school attendance rates. Attendance is usually around 50 – 65% of students at school on any given day, but while swimming lessons were a part of the daily curriculum, attendance rates jumped to nearly 100% for the 2 week period!
When asked about the possibility of returning, Hayden said “The school principal and I have discussed that, and he is keen for someone to come back later in year, before summer, to reinforce the skills learnt and teach new students”. When asked if he would recommend a teaching stint in Wilcannia and other regional areas to other swim teachers, Hayden replied “Without a doubt. It was such a great, rewarding experience. Being out there, and seeing a different way that people live in this huge country. I would recommend this experience to any other swim teachers, and would really like to see the program expand into other towns”.