Learning to Swim – One Tot at a Time


The Learn to Swim program at Trunk Bay is funded by Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.


TRUNK BAY — On a beautiful summer day in Trunk Bay, more than 35 St John children take to the sea to learn a critical skill: how to swim. Over the course of a few weeks in July many of these future guardians of the island go from fearing putting their heads under water and wearing swim belts to splashing and diving for rings on the sandy bottom. The Learn to Swim program, funded by Friends of Virgin Islands National Park and managed by the National Park, is one of 21 programs and projects that Friends funds and facilitates around the Island.

The Learn to Swim program has been running for decades. In fact, one proud parent watching his 6 year old learn with long-time volunteer instructor Lee Hoerner, recalls taking these very lessons as a boy with Oscar James and Ilva Wesselhoff. In fact, when he was in 6th grade, after his lessons, he started diving for conch and whelk to pay for his school uniform.

“We used to come early and get chicken and French fries from Joe’s Diner before our lesson.” Years later, his older sons (now 24 and 25) attended and today his son Caleel happily grows more and more comfortable in the water thanks to the instruction of dedicated park ranger Laurel Brannick and Friends summer intern, Jasper Guyer-Stevens. Brannick says the kids come year after year.

The Learn to Swim program works with any organized youth group. They try to accommodate everyone. They teach groups from camps and churches around St John and St Thomas and will work with stateside groups too. “These kids are future stewards of our coral reefs and beaches. How will they know to protect them if they don’t know what they are and see them for themselves?” Brannick thoughtfully asks.

Thanks to the generous donors of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, who raises over $500,000 per year to fund over 20 preservation, protection, and education projects around the island annually, this program is free for the kids to attend. The kickboards, swim belts, snorkels, masks, hoops, and rings are all paid for by Friends of the Park as well.

Being comfortable in the ocean is the first step to discovering, valuing and protecting coral reefs and marine life.  Ironically, many local families come from a culture in which elders don’t know how to swim.  This program breaks down financial and educational barriers to give lessons that last a lifetime, may save lives, and will engage children in our environment.

Hoerner understands this as she helps two of the kids become comfortable putting their faces underwater. She begins by dropping two plastic rings to the sand about two feet below and the kids reach down to grab them. Gradually she goes a little deeper and eventually the kids are dunking their heads underwater with their masks and retrieving the rings. They quickly make major progress, getting over that initial fear. They also overcome their fear of the small fish. Guyer-Stevens recounts a conversation with one of the new swimmers, “Ranger Laurel sends the kids swimming from the shallow waters to a little deeper waters, a distance only about 10-15 feet, this is sometimes the most some kids have ever swum – and one girl on the first day was scared of the fish she saw under water, but the next time around she told me how she wasn’t scared of them anymore! It was awesome to see the progress in such a short amount of time.”

If you would like to support the Learn-to-Swim program and help it grow, contact Karen Vahling, Friends development director, at kvahling@friendsvinp.org or call 779-4940.