May 26, 2004 – By the end of this year, the number of children who've learned to swim on St. Croix will have increased by 150. Those same 150 children will have gotten good grades in school, thanks largely to extra tutoring, increased attendance and even some extra meals.
All of these things add up to just one cog in a wheel of social change, and the man responsible for putting it into motion just wanted to coach competitive swimming.
Dan Dakus moved to St. Croix two years ago to do what he'd been doing his whole life — teaching people to swim competitively. But he soon realized that many people on the island didn't know how to swim at all, much less compete, and affordable lessons were hard for them to come by.
After doing some research, Dakus found that swimming programs tend to spread in the wake of economic progress around the globe. The better the economy, the more likely people are to learn to swim.
But on a Caribbean island, swimming is not just a leisure activity to be enjoyed by middle and upper classes, Dakus says; it can be a matter of life or death.
Last year, Dakus quit coaching and started the St. Croix Learn to Swim Foundation. With limited resources and some help from Sister Claudia of St. Mary's Catholic School, he turned his attention to children of Fredensborg and La Vallee, two impoverished communities on the island.
He recruited about 25 youngsters of elementary and junior high age, took them to the beach, and started giving swimming lessons. Under his instruction they learned to swim 25 yards unassisted. And, together with Sister Claudia, he established a program that combined swimming lessons two days a week with tutoring two days a week.
But Dakus was encountering things he hadn't seen before in his years of coaching. He found he had taken on a population of youngsters who couldn't afford swimsuits, much less swimming lessons. He bought each child a swimsuit, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. The children had no transportation to the beach, so he started sending a taxi to pick them up.
He also found that the kids were hungry after a couple hours in the water; so now each day, whether it's been a day of swimming or of tutoring, the children don't go home until they've eaten a meal.
The more involved he became, the more Dakus realized that swimming wasn't the only issue at stake. Learning to swim became an excuse to help motivate the youngsters to become better students and better citizens.
Running the Learn to Swim Foundation is now Dakus's full-time job. "We're trying to affect social change in a community," he says. And with that recognition, he decided to seek out some expertise.
"The stakes are too high in this game," he says. "Instead of doing guesswork, I brought down two sociologists."
He called on Don Hastings and Sherry Cable, long-time friends from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which has a Sociology Department with a thematic emphasis on social justice. Interested in Dakus's concept of social inequality keeping people from learning to swim, the department decided to carry out a study of the Learn to Swim Foundation.
Hastings and Cable spent week on St. Croix recently learning everything they could about the island and the program. They'll submit a report to the foundation with recommendations on how best to reach its goals, which go far beyond swimming.
One recommendation is to buy a van to make the program more self-sufficient in terms of meeting the children's transportation needs. Another is to turn an unused school building in La Vallee into a community center to house a Head Start program, after-school tutoring, and adult education programs.
Dakus hopes to hire people from within the community to drive the van, teach swimming lessons and take care of two portable swimming pools that will be set up.
"I know it seems like a long way from swimming," Cable says, "but people need a reason to come together. They need some way to recognize they're in the same boat. There are all kinds of activities that produce those kinds of bonds between people. It's an easy connect-the-dots if you're a sociologist."
Hastings and Cable plan to return to St. Croix in December to study the program further. Dakus's dream is to make the Learn to Swim concept a success on St. Croix, and then adapt the model to other islands. The next step is getting support from the community, both social and financial, to see the project through.
"If this thing happens, it's because of Dan," Cable says. "He's a mountain of a man and tenacious as a bulldog."
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