NewPublicHealth on Location: Austin, Texas

Sep 14, 2012, 1:47 PM


What can happen when local partners collaborate to improve community health? In Austin, Texas, one such collaboration between the local YMCA, child safety advocacy group SafeKids Austin, Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and local elementary schools, has resulted in Project SAFE (Swimming, Aquatics, Fitness Education). The project, a free, two-week water safety and physical activity program for over 3,000 first-graders, includes an introduction to the Y, and its sliding scale fees for the kids and their families, many of whom are from underserved neighborhoods. About 20 percent of the families of kids in the project program returned to the Y facilities after their kids completed the class.We took a detour while in Austin for the ASTHO Annual Meeting to learn more about the Austin YMCA’s programs.

Not all the kids are swimmers by the end of the sessions, but most are comfortable in the water, can float on their back, know the importance of life jackets, recognize a swimmer in trouble and know “it’s not safe to run at the pool,” chime a group that has just finished up a morning lesson. That knowledge can be lifesaving, says Bret Kiester, executive director of the Hays Communities YMCA, one of the participating Y’s hosting the classes.

“Drowning is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for kids under fourteen, and many of these kids have no regular access to pools or the beach,” Kiester. On vacation, Kiester says, families may visit lakes, rivers and pools—and having no familiarity with water is often how accidents happen.

Austin YMCA

The kids’ school teachers say the swim time at the Y pool is a first for many of the kids. One teacher borrowed a bathing suit from her sister for a student who couldn’t afford one, “and now she brings it every day.” Some parents, frightened of the pool part of the program at first would not sign permission forms, say the teachers. But the kids’ excitement after the first session won most of them over, according to their teachers, who stay at the pool for any discipline needs.  (On the day we visited there was nary a discipline issue in sight, as we watched the kids get on their bellies to extend a helping hand and flexible noodle to a friend struggling to get out of the water.)

Austin YMCA

The first graders are split into two groups once they arrive at the Y, with half going to the water with their safety instructors for 45 minutes, and the other half headed to physical activities in the gym and on the ground. That physical activity and the interest it sparks for many kids, is crucial. According to data provided by the Y, 55 percent of kids in Texas don’t meet recommended physical activity levels.

Program goals include:

  • Provide all program participants with beginner-level swimming instruction, to help build a safer community
  • Provide program participants with safety and injury prevention instruction, including water safety, child passenger safety and bike safety
  • Provide participants with instruction in fitness activities, important for a healthy lifestyle
  • Help participants develop self-confidence, self-respect and appreciation for their own worth as individuals
  • Create a platform for children to engage their parents in conversations about safety issues and healthy lifestyles

Project SAFE is one of several Austin Y partner collaborations to improve population health. Others include:

  • MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it!), which begins a new session this month. MEND is free healthy living program designed to help children ages 7 to 13 who are above their healthy body weight, and their families, become fitter, healthier and happier. The 10-week program meets two times a week and instructors teach families nutrition, goal setting and physical activity. Children exercise at each session by taking part in a game-based, non-competitive physical activity program that gradually increases in intensity and difficulty as their fitness levels improve.
  • Rx for Healthy Living is collaboration with two local nonprofits, theSustainable Food Center and the People’s Community Clinic. Eligible patients receive a prescription from People’s Community Clinic and are enrolled in the free, 8-week healthy living course, which includes instruction on how to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables on a budget, how to cook healthy foods and exercise classes including Zumba and weight lifting.
  • Dell Reading Program: In 2000, with support from the Dell Foundation, the YMCA of Austin began this program which helps children from families of limited resources who demonstrated poor reading and comprehension skills during the Y’s summer camp program. Since it began, thousands of kids have improved their reading and comprehension skills through this partnership with the computer company.
  • Diabetes Prevention: The Austin Y has received a $100,000 grant from United Healthcare to conduct a new Diabetes Prevention Program, which will begin in January, 2013. The group-based lifestyle intervention program is designed especially for people at high risk of developing diabetes. The class is led by a trained lifestyle coach who helps participants work on diet and exercise.
  • Parks & Rec Partnership: A new Y is being built in North Austin in partnership with the City of Austin Parks & Recreation Department. The new Y will include a large community garden that is being funded by the city’s Art in Public Places program. Garden programming will be overseen by a staff member from Sustainable Food Center.

On a recent visit to a Y in the Buda neighborhood of Austin, staffers filed out among the kids teaching them how to climb into the pool, tie a life jacket and walk the pool area safely, as teachers keep an eye out and directors look on proudly—a microcosm of the collaboration that’s transforming the city.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.