The kid wouldn’t admit it, no way. Not in front of the girls.
After all, he’s 12. And the book on How to Put Up a Macho Front arguably could’ve been written by a 12-year-old.
But the dimples that emerged, courtesy of a watermelon-slice smile, told a different story.
Enrique Lessner was pretty darn pumped – and rightfully so – despite trying to play it cool.
See, on June 28, Enrique had just passed his swim test at Splash Country Water Park, and was awarded the coveted green bracelet, which allows park visitors unlimited access to all of Splash’s amenities. Enrique grabbed a tube and headed straight toward the big, blue waterslide, where he waited about five minutes before taking his first-ever winding ride through the swishing water. (See embedded video.)
“When I went to the side, it felt like I was about to fly over the edge,” said Enrique, the smile now in full throttle. “That was fun. I can swim now!”
Rewind six weeks.
“That’s when I used to go in three feet of water,” said Enrique, an incoming eighth-grader at Simmons Middle School in Aurora. “And I’d just stand there.”
But thanks to the partnership formed between the Fox Valley Park Foundation and Wayside Cross Urban Youth Ministry, Enrique and more than 60 of his pals received five, one-hour sessions of free swim lessons in early June at Splash Country. The Rotary Club of Aurora, which allocated grant funding to compensate aquatics staff and instructors, and Aurora Youth Township Services, which provided transportation, also played key roles in the “Learn to Swim” program’s second year.
This summer, attendance nearly doubled from 37 in 2018.
“And that’s because word gets out from parents – and parents have to trust,” Robin Sterkel, Urban Youth Program Coordinator, said. “What I’ve learned in all of our programs is that you have to gain a certain amount of trust with the parents and a certain amount of trust with the kids. And then it just snowballs.”
Part of the Park Foundation’s mission is to provide access to recreation to people in the community who can’t afford it, so officials went in search of groups of under-served youth. Rachel Ossyra, the Park Foundation’s director of development, last year approached officials at Wayside Cross. Soon after, a partnership was formed and kids from the Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League, along with children participating in T-ball and other Urban Youth Ministry camps, found themselves in a pool, receiving free swim lessons from the Fox Valley Park District’s certified aquatics instructors.
“Knowing how to swim is so important, because it’s a life-saving skill everybody needs, especially with a big river running through our community,” Ossyra said. “And it’s also a source of recreation – and participating and belonging.”
Sterkel and her staff take the Urban Youth campers on field trips to Splash Country twice per summer. Before the swim lessons were offered, “the kids went and were excited, but they couldn’t go on the slides, because they couldn’t pass the swim test,” Sterkel said. “But after taking the lessons, it made such a noticeable difference; you could just see their newfound confidence.
“The Park District isn’t just for children who can afford it. It’s for ALL children, and parents can see that. It’s a really cool partnership.”
For more information about the Fox Valley Park Foundation’s mission, history and impact, visit foxvalleyparkfoundation.org.