Swimming against the tide to conquer fear and doubt
By Tana Monteiro
August 20, 2015 Updated: August 20, 2015 2:10pm
Photo: Tana Monteiro, Zocalo Public Square
Adult swim lessons at the Richmond Plunge have helped boost the confidence of several black and Latino women to not only enjoy the water and a healthy recreational activity but to also become more involved in the East Bay city’s civic life.
North Richmond and the Iron Triangle are East Bay neighborhoods full of vacant lots and run-down houses, with Chevron’s refinery puffing away on the horizon. I work here with 20 “wellness navigators” — female leaders who are learning to guide their families, neighbors and themselves toward better health. I want to tell you what we found when we went to the swimming pool together.
The Richmond Plunge is one of the most beautiful indoor swimming pools in the nation, and at $5 for a day pass, a visit is cheaper than a Big Mac meal. It is right in front of a major bus line. But most of the black and brown Richmond residents I work with don’t think the Plunge is for them. At most, they might take their kids to the Plunge once a year on a Saturday Family Swim Day, and if they are brave enough to wear a bathing suit, they will splash around in the shallow end.
That’s not the only barrier keeping certain people from the Plunge. There’s a lack of money and time and motivation — feeling isolated and stuck in your neighborhood, your body and your situation. Fear of the water, fear of being out of place and fear of looking foolish get transmitted from parent to child. These barriers add up to an unhealthy community, where large groups of people might suffer from obesity, depression, fear and distrust.
I come from a similar background to many of the people I work with: I am an African American parent, and I’ve been on my own since I was 18. I know how little things can be a big hurdle.
When the community nonprofit Richmond Swims got a grant to offer adult swim lessons and chose the navigators to be the first participants, I helped the ladies fill out the paperwork. I got some fees waived. I promised rides to get them to the Plunge.
On the first day, our little group was feeling shy, our mom bellies pooching out. The Latino ladies were trying to get their long hair in the caps, and the African American ladies were wearing two caps, to make sure their hair did not get wet.
When we walked out on deck, I was surprised that we were the only ones in the pool besides the lifeguards and “Coach B,” our instructor. We could relax without being distracted by kids splashing or people staring. Coach B asked us to sit on the edge of the pool and put our feet in, kick and slide in. She had us walk the length of the pool, and finally we held hands in a circle and bobbed our heads underwater. Holding hands was key. The ladies who were not afraid to go under were able to support the ladies who were.
One woman was deathly afraid: She is about 70 years old, and suffers from depression. On that first day, just walking the length of the pool, she was crying and shaking. Coach was on one side of her, and her sister was on the other, and they were practically carrying her. I didn’t think she would stay in the water, but she did. She walked across the length of the pool again and again, becoming less afraid each time, while the navigators cheered her on.
Everyone came back for the next lesson and the next. Many completed 18 lessons. Getting past a barrier in your life can be scary, because it also means an excuse is gone. The navigators could now say yes to the pool, the beach, the lake. And that means there is a greater chance they will say yes to the next challenge.
This past year, the navigators have signed up to go back to school, and are teaching everything from diabetes workshops to Zumba classes at their local school. They are going to Richmond Food Policy Council meetings and addressing school board members at district meetings. That’s what a healthy community looks like — no longer isolated, or afraid. Everyone jumps in the pool.
Tana Monteiro is the community wellness coordinator at YES Nature to Neighborhoods. She has lived in Richmond and nearby San Pablo for the past 17 years and is raising four sons. She wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at www.sfgate.com/submissions.