Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Last year, Barry Bowling was searching for a way to make a real impact in his community.

"I told my wife there is something God wants us to do. I just didn’t know what it was," says Barry. “She said to pray about it.”

Barry got his answer as listened to a radio report on the way to the beach. Six teenagers drowned in Louisiana’s Red River trying to save a friend who slipped into deeper water. None of the teenagers or adults watching from the riverbank could swim. The tragedy highlighted a startling statistic. Some 70 percent of African-American youth can’t swim, and drowning rates for young blacks are far higher than for whites.

To Barry, swimming is a rudimentary skill he can’t even remember learning, like walking or riding a bike. He taught his children to respect and feel comfortable around the water at a young age. Hearing the report about the Louisiana drownings led Barry to what he calls his epiphany.

"The light bulb went off," says Barry. "You need to create a program that teaches parents, children, people of any age, how to swim. We have to provide that outlet for folks who don't have the opportunity or funds to pay for swim lessons. I was so excited going down the road. The first thing that popped in my head was the YMCA."

Barry has been a member of the Alexander Family Y in downtown Raleigh for nearly 20 years. He participated in fund-raising efforts, but says he wasn’t a heavily involved volunteer. That changed when Barry pulled to the side of the road and called Brad Davis, YMCA of the Triangle Vice President of Development.

Getting started
“I can’t give enough credit to Brad for turning the idea around and giving it direction. Jon Mills (the Alexander YMCA Branch Director) called me within days and we went to lunch,” says Barry. “I told him I’ll find the money somewhere. Let’s get going.”

Within weeks, the Alexander Y staff developed a business plan and solicited staff members who were experts in aquatics and outreach efforts. Barry made a few tweaks and solicited donors who have a real commitment to the community. Joe Davis (Davis Wealth Management) Ven and Lisa Poole (C3 Foundation) and Karl Blackley (Preston Development Company) now sit on the steering committee. Barry describes the whole process as “lightning quick.”

Swim for Life class June 13

In March, the first free Swim for Life session was held at the YMCA’s pool on Oberlin Road. Barry, his wife and two children were there. Barry got in the pool on the fourth day.

“I helped six adult women who were between 30 and 60 years old. At the end of the lesson, they were able to swim the length of the pool unassisted,” exclaims Barry. “One of the instructors told me that at the beginning of the session, they were terrified of the water.”

This week, more than 65 children and adults are participating in the second Swim for Life sessions operated by the Alexander Family YMCA. Staff and community volunteers say they’re learning as much as participants.

"It was moving to see folks who were afraid of the water get in and have fun." says Jon Mills, Alexander Y Branch Director. "I worked with six teens and children who started the session hanging on the side of the pool and ended up swimming halfway across the pool later in the day!"

And don’t think Barry is done dreaming about the possibilities.

“At the end of three years, I’d like to see this swim program folded into the annual We Build People program through the Alexander Family Y,” says Barry. “There are other people who have the same goal, but just don’t know where to start. Let’s make it easy for other organizations. Hold this up as a model to the YMCA of the Triangle, any Y and any other organization. Here’s a program that works, that’s tested and implemented.”

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