PROVIDENCE, RI – Ray Rickman knows that learning to swim can be life-changing and can save lives.  And he’s worked for years to turn the tide on the dangerous myth that Black people don’t swim.

Swimming is good for physical and mental health and just plain fun for kids.  But over the years, systemic barriers and historical disparities – including segregation, discrimination, and lack of access to swimming pools -- have hindered many children in the Black community from learning to swim.  So Rickman, the Executive Director of Stages of Freedom and Founder of Swim Empowerment, has been on a mission to empower young people by bringing swim lessons and water safety education to underserved populations, particularly the Black community.  His efforts and leadership have helped many young Black Rhode Islanders learn to swim.  Now he is teaming up with the YMCA of Greater Providence to deliver more accessible swim safety and instruction for local families.

Today, U.S. Senator Jack Reed visited the indoor pool at the East Side/Mt. Hope YMCA to present Stages of Freedom with a $200,000 check from the United States government that will support efforts to teach Rhode Island African-American youth swim safety, encourage participation in swimming, and decrease drowning rates.

Reed, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, secured the federal earmark for Stages of Freedom in the Fiscal Year 2023 Consolidated Appropriations law.  Reed also helped lead the successful effort to include $2 million for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) water safety and drowning prevention activities.

Stages of Freedom will use the $200,000 earmark to team up with the YMCA of Greater Providence to help close the historic swimming disparity gap by teaching more low-income Black children to swim at no expense to them personally through free 6-month memberships and no-cost swimming lessons.

Teaching children to learn to swim provides them with a skill that lasts a lifetime, boosts self-esteem and confidence, offers opportunity for fun and healthy exercise, and can help save lives.

“Swimming is a useful skill, but learning can be intimidating, especially if you come from a household where other family members don’t swim.  This is a terrific program that teaches young people -- especially kids from non-swimming households -- to enjoy swimming while staying safe.  Every Rhode Islander lives near some body of water.  And Ray Rickman and his team have done outstanding work over the years to increase opportunities for Black children to learn how to swim,” said Senator Reed.  “I salute Ray and the YMCA for teaming up to give every kid a chance to learn to swim, have fun, and stay safe.  Ultimately, this program will help change lives and save lives and prevent drowning incidents.  It’s also going to help change the future.  The kids learning to swim today will one day pass this skill along to their children and grandchildren.  We’re changing the future, one stroke at a time.”

“At Stages of Freedom it is our dream that one day all the youth of Rhode Island will have equal access to job training, education, recreational opportunities, and food and housing. We believe that providing swimming lessons for the 25,000 low-income youth in our community who cannot swim is difficult and easy. We are thrilled that Senator Jack Reed shares our view of what is possible and with this generous federal funding we are taking another big step toward that goal. On behalf of young people in all of our 39 cities and towns, we thank our illustrious Senator,” said Ray Rickman, Executive Director of Stages of Freedom.

Black youth drown five times more often than their white counterparts.  This new federal funding augments Stages of Freedom’s award-winning Swim Empowerment program that has operated for nine years at nine partnering YMCAs across the state.  The initiative ensures that Black youth do not drown, become proficient swimmers, improve health and wellness, and expand their life opportunities.

Preventing drowning is a top priority at YMCAs across the country.  Fatal drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children 5 to 14 years of age, according to the CDC.  Children aged 1 to 4 die from drowning more than any other cause of death.  This problem is particularly prevalent among the Black community and other minority communities where children lack swimming experience.  A YMCA report shows that 64 percent of Black/African-American children cannot swim and Black youth are at the highest risk for drowning.  And the CDC’s Drowning Facts shows that for every child under age 18 who dies from drowning, another 7 receive emergency department care for nonfatal drowning.

The East Side/Mt. Hope YMCA has a heated indoor pool and offers a range of swimming lessons, water enrichment, and aquatic readiness programs to the community, including Swim Starters, Swim Basics, and Swim Strokes.

To learn more about Stages of Freedom’s Swim Empowerment program and to register your child for free swim lessons, visit: