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#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti's Rutherford Pool partners with Washtenaw County to meet high demand for swim lessons


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: Ypsi's Rutherford Pool partners with Washtenaw County to meet high demand for swim lessons

Rutherford Pool

Friends of Rutherford Pool Contact Info


Josh Hakala: You are listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community, and we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, we are going to the pool--the Rutherford Pool. And today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, who was online news site is reporting this week on the Rutherford Pool. And, Rylee, thanks so much for being with us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: And talking to us over the phone is Rutherford Pool program director Cathy Thorburn. Hi, Cathy.

Cathy Thorburn: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Josh Hakala: Rylee, let's start with you. Sarah Rigg wrote this story. And, other than the obvious, who doesn't want to go to a swimming pool and write a story in the summertime? But why is Rutherford Pool on Concentrate Media's radar?

Rylee Barnsdale: What Sarah's article actually entails and goes over is this new partnership between Rutherford Pool, as well as the Washtenaw County Parks and Rec Department. So, the Rutherford Pool offers swim lessons for adults and for teenagers as well, who maybe didn't have the opportunity to learn how to swim when they were younger and maybe don't want to be in a class full of 5- to 6-year-olds or younger kids learning how to swim as well. And, unfortunately, because those lessons are so popular, there's a fairly long waitlist to get in the pool and learn how to swim. So, what the Parks and Rec department wanted to do was expand that accessibility and make it a lot easier for folks to come in, learn how to swim. Because when you live in Michigan, where, you know, we're surrounded by water, we've got lakes all over the place, it's a pretty vital skill to know. So, this partnership--this new partnership--between the pool and the county is hopefully going to make it a lot easier for folks to learn how to swim.

Josh Hakala: And give us a little history lesson. How long has it been around?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, the pool opened up in 1973, actually, and was named after Jesse Rutherford, who was the first African American to serve on the Michigan Parks and Rec Association. And the pool was closed after the 2011 season due to upkeep expenses and reopened again in May 2014, after the Friends of the Rutherford Pool raised over $1 million through grants and donations to completely rebuild the pool.

Josh Hakala: And so, the Friends of the Rutherford Pool has really been the foundation of this entire, not only just reopening it, but then expanding programs and doing different things.

Rylee Barnsdale: That's right. Expanding programming to not only make going to the pool a little bit more exciting, maybe, you know, we've got different activities and events going on there, as well as increasing the accessibility to learning how to swim. The Friends of the Rutherford Pool have really been working hard to make sure that it's always a good time to go to the pool. And there's always a space for you to learn.

Josh Hakala: All right. Cathy Thorburn, I understand there has been a lot of demand for people wanting to take lessons and get involved with your pool. I think Rylee mentioned there's a waitlist. Unfortunately, as hot as it's been, this interview is probably only going to make things worse because people are going to listen, and they're like, "I want to go swimming!" But it's a nice problem to have really.

Cathy Thorburn: It is. With money does come problems. It's been great to have the grants to provide these free swim lessons and the fact that we can now reach a bigger population of kids that may not have--and adults that may not have been able--to take lessons before. It's wonderful, but we only have so much space. And so, this is why it's great that the county has stepped in and said, "Hey, let us see if we can help you with some of those adults and those teens" that, as she said, standing next to a five-year-old in knee high water or whatever, is not going to be attractive to a teenager.

Josh Hakala: So, start with some of the basics here. What are some of the barriers that keep people from learning to swim, and why is it so important to learn it?

Cathy Thorburn: Well, there's the systemic segregation, the years of segregation, the years of, well, my parents didn't learn how to swim, so I didn't learn how to swim or, you know, I don't have a swimsuit. We provide swimsuits to kids and adults through our scholarship program. So, I go shopping at the beginning of the summer for swimsuits for these folks. And I gave one to a little boy the other day and he says, "I get to keep this? I've never had a swimsuit before." And it just about broke my heart. But swimming, I just read, I believe, two children in Jackson County just died of drowning. And we need not to have that happen anymore. And, like you said, we are surrounded by water in the state of Michigan. And we just have to be extra careful. It's a lifelong skill too. Lifelong exercise. It's easy on the joints for the most part. And a lot of our former swimmers come back as lifeguards. So, it can be an employment opportunity also.

Josh Hakala: And why do you think you're seeing so many adults that are wanting to learn to swim?

Cathy Thorburn: I'm not sure how many places actually offer it, you know, unless you go to a gym and have to pay membership and so forth. And here, it's relatively inexpensive or now free to take these swim lessons through this grant program. And maybe that's helping to take some of that anxiety away also.

Josh Hakala: There's a wide age range for these programs for these teaching people to swim. It's not just, as we mentioned...there's young kids. Obviously, there's teenagers. And there's some adults. But even the older crowd as well.

Cathy Thorburn: In July, we have a basically like a baby bubbles class. So, that's targeted for 0- to 2-year-olds. And parents, obviously, have to be in that class or grandparents, as the case may be, have to be in a class. And then, in our lessons, we start with toddlers, and we go all the way through adults, and we do not classify. People say, "Well, what age do I have to be to be in this class?" Then it's not age. It's ability. We're going to meet you where you are. And then, through water exercise, it's not just seniors in that class, but it does attract a lot of seniors who don't want to swim but do want to continue to get exercise. And it's easier on the joints and so forth.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnesdale and Rutherford Pool program director Cathy Thorburn. A lot of parents have their kids learn to swim in an early age, but not everyone has access to a pool or a consistent access to a lake or even someone to teach them. You mentioned that there are some parents that didn't learn growing up. And there are a lot of teenagers who don't know how to swim. What are some of the challenges in getting teenagers in the pool?

Cathy Thorburn: Some of the challenges. You know, teenagers are a challenge to do anything.

Josh Hakala: Shocking! That's breaking news!

Cathy Thorburn: Time of day. Who wants to get up early in the morning? Because that's what our lessons are on in the mornings. You know, some are self-conscious about their bodies at that point, too. And so, if we don't get them when they're young, it's harder to grab them as they're older. It's really nice to see these adults come back around. We had one grandmother come in and want lessons because she says, "If I'm taking my grandkids to the pool, I need not to be afraid of the water." And she was probably 70 at that point taking lessons.

Josh Hakala: Yeah, I've seen that in some of my circle of friends where, you know, people have kids or then they want their kids to learn, but maybe they didn't learn themselves. So, it really is sort of they got to learn because their kids are learning because, you know, you don't want, you know, Mom or Dad to be left out.

Cathy Thorburn: And maybe they have the time to do it now. Their work schedule isn't as bad as it was when they were raising the kids. I don't know.

Josh Hakala: Well, traditionally, and we mentioned this earlier in predominantly African American communities, there has been a lack of community swimming pools. And we've seen higher rates of drownings with Black kids rather than white kids. How important is it for Rutherford Pool to make the pool as accessible as possible?

Cathy Thorburn: It's very important to us, and it's definitely on the mind of the board all the time when we're making decisions. Are we reaching out to everybody? Any type of barriers out there? How can we reach everybody? And how can we make people feel included? We have always--well, since I've been here, I think I've been here at least 23 years--we have a swimsuit loaning program. If you come to the pool, we expect you to have a swimsuit on when you get into the pool. It's a state health code. If you don't have one, we will loan you one. We will trade it for a shoe. I take them home, wash them, bring them back, loan them out again. Some people don't like that, but it's a way to eliminate one of those barriers, so that we can get people in the water. We have a wheelchair that can go in the water. So, if you have a physical disability that prevents you from being able to walk or access the water that way or go down the ramp, we can push the wheelchair into the water, so you can access the water that way. So, we try and think of all the things that will keep you from being able to come in and work around that.

Josh Hakala: Well, you mentioned that diversity is a goal of the pool. Are you seeing results of that as time goes on?

Cathy Thorburn: I think we are. Our staff, we also try and have a diverse staff. So, definitely making sure that we're getting kids in the pool of color, so that we can later have them on staff is important to us too, so that everybody is well-represented and feels comfortable coming here.

Josh Hakala: Well, if somebody wants to get involved with the pool or with the Friends of the Rutherford Pool, how do they get involved?

Cathy Thorburn: Contact anybody at the pool. Myself. I'm here a lot. They could email us at Friends of Rutherford Pool at gmail.com. Just reach out, and we will see how you can help. I mean, we have a kids triathlon coming up that started out as a fundraiser for the pool and a way to get kids involved in that board. It's completely for fun. Everybody gets a medal. You can choose how far you run and how far you bike. It's all in the pool. It's all in Recreation Park sponsored by the Kiwanis. And we need volunteers for that. So, there's many ways you can help out if it's not even on the pool deck.

Josh Hakala: Well, it would be silly of me to not ask the program director at the Rutherford Pool about the various programs that. You mentioned one of them right there. Tell us a little bit about some of the programs that the pool offers.

Cathy Thorburn: So, we sometimes have an inner tube water polo where you play in the deep end, but you have to be in an inner tube. We provide the inner tubes. We have a Wednesday night standing water polo game for adults. And it's all just for fun. Everybody has to go to work the next day. So, it's no professional water polo playing happening. Besides swim lessons, we have special pass holder events. We have three a summer. We have the Ypsilanti Otters swim team practicing at our pool. They're part of the WISP organization. So, in the summer, they practice with us. And in the winter, they're in one of the Ypsi pools. And then, we just support other organizations such as Parkridge, the senior center, Mentor2Youth, Educate Youth. So, we just have a lot of community partners that we work with.

Josh Hakala: There's a good chance if you head down to the Rutherford Pool, you might bump into Cathy Thorburn. She is the program director there. And, Rylee Barnsdale, thanks so much for joining us from Concentrate Media. And it's been a good time talking about the pool. I feel like I really need to go hop in a pool now.

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah. I'm ready to go swimming.

Cathy Thorburn: Bring some good weather with you and a swimsuit.

Josh Hakala: Got my swimsuit. Ready. This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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