ZEPHYRHILLS — When Kayleb Samuel passed his rigorous swimming test at the East Pasco YMCA, he felt like Michael Phelps winning the Olympic gold medal.
The 6-year-old broke into a wide grin showing his missing front teeth.
Not bad for a kid who couldn't swim a lick just a few weeks ago.
Kayleb is one of three dozen kids from Lacoochee's Lewis Abraham Boys and Girls Club who have enjoyed free summer swimming lessons at the YMCA, located at 37301 Chapel Hill Loop in Zephyrhills.
There's no public pool in the largely minority community of Lacoochee, and many families don't have the money for swimming lessons elsewhere. So the YMCA — which let the Lacoochee kids play in the pool last summer at no cost — gave the kids free swimming lessons this year.
"Drowning is the leading cause of death in the state of Florida," said Jen Silvers, who runs both the East Pasco and Dade City branches of the YMCA, "and these kids don't have pools. We want to give them an opportunity to learn a lifelong skill that could possibly save their life one day."
On a recent Wednesday morning, the Lacoochee swimmers splashed and floated around in one designated lane at the pool.
Juan Herrera, 9, and his brother Javier Parra, 13, both sported neon green armbands as they splashed around in the 6 feet section of the pool. The bands are a way for the YMCA swim instructors and lifeguards to recognize the more skilled swimmers out of the bunch: those who have aced the swim test and proven they can aptly swim the length of the pool without touching the bottom plus tread water for at least 30 seconds. Before this summer, Juan hadn't been to a pool since he was a tot.
But now, "If someone is drowning at the beach, I can go help them," Juan said.
Florida leads the nation in drowning deaths involving kids ages 1 to 4, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Health. Each year in Florida, the number of children who drown before their fifth birthday could fill four preschool classrooms.
Ingrid Bozo, 6, clung to the side of the pool wearing a pink Barbie life vest. At least she was brave enough to get in this time. On the first day, back in June, she was so afraid of the water that she burst into tears.
Ingrid was part of the majority of kids who were wearing a foam backpack for safety. Belly flops and diving are not allowed.
The group from Lacoochee traveled on a bus for a half hour twice a week to get to the East Pasco YMCA. Michael Brittingham II, who runs the Lacoochee Boys and Girls Club, said he's grateful for the chance for his kids to learn to swim. The kids swim right alongside "Mr. Michael," a burly man who doubles as the club's bus driver, too.
Typically, East Pasco YMCA members must pay about $50 for eight swim lessons. The cost is $75 for nonmembers. Charitable donations have been down for years, Silvers said. This year's Building Strong Kids fundraising campaign brought in $64,000 in donations from the community. But the East Pasco YMCA still manages to contribute more than $250,000 in services each year, Silvers said.
The East Pasco and Central City branches of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA are the only ones to have partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to provide such services for free.
It just so happened that YMCA's top brass was paying a visit to the East Pasco branch on a recent Wednesday and caught the Lacoochee kids in action.
Tom Looby, president and CEO of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, noted that mastering the skill of swimming gives kids a boost of confidence.
"Boy, when (Kayleb) swam the length of the pool and got his green wristband, you should have seen the smile on his face," Looby said. "He felt good about himself."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.