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Opinion: Let’s teach every kid in San Diego County how to swim

Brunker is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune’s community advisory board. He is the principal at michaelbrunker.net and a former YMCA executive director and former basketball coach at San Diego State University. He lives in the Knolls of Del Cerro.

In December 2015, San Diego Magazine interviewed 26 leadersin health, science, politics, food, and culture to share their game-changing ideas for San Diego in 2016. The feature was called “26 BIG Ideas.”I was quoted about the lack of swimming pools in Southeastern San Diego communities.

There are only three public pools in the Southeastern San Diego community, including the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA where Brunker works. Within its service area, an estimated three-quarters of children ages 5 to 12 have never taken swimming lessons. “At a time when our kids see loss of life in so many venues, learning how to swim teaches children the value of life-starting with their own,” says Brunker. More pools are needed, as well as more swim instructors, more days and hours of operation, and a way to get kids to the lessons.

Three months later, on March 1, 2016, the branch operation at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA closed to make way for the demolition of the existing facility and the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility. The new Jackie Robinson Family YMCA reopened in October 2017 with a promise of a pool to come.

During my 23 years of service with the YMCA of San Diego County and 22 at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA, I would constantly hear stories from our elder community icons that would detail how they learned how to swim at this revered YMCA.

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The late Dr. Robert Matthews often told this story about how the pool at the Southeast YMCA (later known as the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA) became the first in the region.

“A great benefactor to the YMCA was a very elderly man who was in his 80s, his name is Pappy Hazard. Roscoe ‘Pappy’ Hazard. We decided eventually we were going to put a swimming pool in. I was president of the board at the time and Fred Davies [owner of Greenwood Memorial Park and Cemetery] arranged to have me talk to Pappy Hazard. Well, Pappy was an old man at that time, he was in his 80s, and you know what the climate was back in those days [early 1960s]. Well, Fred did not tell Pappy I was a person of color. So, we went out to Mission Valley and Pappy had a herd of buffaloes out there. It was simply a dirt road out in that area not the superhighway we have today. So, I go out and I walk in. Now Fred had schooled me. He said that Pappy might say anything to me and if I showed any sign of resentment, we might lose everything. So, I walk in, and I could tell by all the clerks and personnel that Fred was someone they respected but they were not expecting me and you could tell that. And we enter the inner sanctum and Pappy looks up and every other word he used was a curse word. Pappy looked and he said to Fred, ‘Fred, don’t shock me like that! By God, you didn’t tell me he was a colored boy!’ So, I listened to him and kept my temper and didn’t lose it. And he said to me, ‘you know a swimming pool is nothing but a hole in the ground and I’m going to build a pool but I’m going to build it to my specifications.’ And he did build it and at that time it was the best YMCA pool anywhere in Southern California.”

In 1963, Rufus DeWitt arrived from Montgomery, Alabama, to become the executive director of the Southeast YMCA after Ernest Uno returned to his native Hawaii. One year later, the three-lane pool built by Pappy Hazard became a reality long before there was an Interstate 805. It featured a deep end with a diving board and a shallow kiddie pool.

For 52 years, there were uninterrupted aquatics activities at this YMCA, making the past five and one-half years without one (2016-2022) a point of contention for a community that kept asking why.

From the time I became executive director of the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA in October 1997 until he was called to be with the Lord, Rev. George Walker Smith would constantly challenge me to build an Olympic sized pool at his Y. I would respond with we did not have the room for a 50-meter tank of water, but it was clear to me that our beloved “Rev” had a vision of building an aquatic complex that could develop our inner-city girls and boys to one day compete in the Olympics.

Those questions will cease when the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA cuts the ribbon on a new state-of-the-art aquatic center and over 100 additional parking spaces on Friday, June 24.

The new complex will more than triple in size the hole built to Pappy Hazard’s specifications. Three 25-yard lanes have expanded to six lanes with everything needed to host swim meets for youth and high school competitions. Lap swimming can now co-exist with a separate area for swim lessons and water exercise classes. Before it was one or the other — not both.

And the pool will not be the only place to get wet.

We’ve all seen water parks and splash pads become a popular destination for families with little ones. Now there will be one right next to the pool at this new aquatic center with innovative features for kids to have a wet and wild blast.

Janice Marie Robinson married the love of her life, Raymond T. Robinson, in 1990. Janice joined the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA Board of Advisors in 2002 shortly after her husband Raymond transitioned in 2001. Janice remained committed to Ray’s vision of establishing a state-of-the-art Aquatic Center at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA where the Aquatic Director’s Office was named in their honor in perpetuity through their personal philanthropy. Her final personal campaign was establishing an Aquatic Center Endowment Fund at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA in honor of her beloved Raymond Robinson. While on the Y board, Raymond and his Kappa Alpha Psi San Diego Alumni Chapter collected used bicycles and stored them in his garage. He would repair them with his own funds and donate them to the YMCA during the holiday season for needy children. But his passion for building that new aquatic center never went away.

Janice and Ray were not alone.

When you step onto the campus of the new Jackie Robinson Family YMCA, everything you see — including the aquatic center — is debt-free. The funding for the pool was pledged and paid from the time the ribbon was cut for the building in October of 2017. There were so many enlightened givers who stood by their transformational commitment and never wavered as they patiently waited for that concept drawing in the lobby to become reality.

While in the California State Assembly, Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher led a team of lawmakers including now Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber, now San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, and Sens. Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso in securing funding for the aquatic center project. Additional seven-figure gifts from the Saxten and Hunter families, the Legler Benbough, Hervey and Girard foundations, and the County of San Diego, thanks to retired Supervisor Greg Coxwould make Janice and Raymond Robinson smile.

Now it’s time to answer the so what question.

I’m a witness to what has been happening in the pool envisioned by Dr. Robert Matthews, Fred Davies and executive director Rufus DeWitt from 1997-2021. Recreation Swim. Swim Lessons. Swim Team. Lap Swim. Aqua Fit. Junior Lifeguards. U.S. Navy Seal Community and Aquatic Safety Awareness Team Program. And an occasional baptism service.

Executive directors between me and Rufus can say the same. Thurman Stockton (1971-1979). Jack Bale (1979). Amos Johnson (1979-1982). Ron Cheatum (1982-1985). Jock Johnson (1985-1993). Janice Berry (1993-1997).

And before Rufus, I’m sure Lawrence Clem (1944-1961) and Ernest Uno (1961-1963) dreamed of having a pool where every child could be taught to swim like the one current executive director Anna Arancibia (since 2021) will now oversee.

Jackie Robinson while serving on the Board of Directors of the 135th Street YMCA in Harlem reminded all, “I want to see the kids who can’t even come into the Y. I want to try to help where it’s needed more.”

The time is now to teach every kid in San Diego County how to swim — starting with the youth that lives in the most critical neighborhood communities served by the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA.

Are you ready to help where it’s needed more?


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