Most Grenadians don’t know how to swim. But one woman is changing that.

Deb Eastwood left behind a six-figure salary at Xerox to work with a youth organization. She now leads a campaign in Grenada to teach islanders – especially children – how to swim.

Ellen Ingwerson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Sefoore Patel learns the basics of swimming from Deb Eastwood at Grenada’s Grand Anse Beach.

It was a steamy Caribbean day six years ago when Deb Eastwood took a group of local youths on a hike in the hills of Grenada. When they stopped at the 30-foot Annandale Falls, her plan was for everyone to cool off in the pool below.

But Ms. Eastwood, a newcomer to this 20-mile-long island and founder of Grenada Youth Adventurers (GYA), was dumbfounded when only two of the eight children jumped in. The rest stayed cautiously back, despite stewing in perspiration.

“The whole reason to go there isn’t to look at the waterfall; it’s to jump in the pool,” she says of her quick realization that the youths didn’t know how to swim.

In fact, she soon learned, 90 percent of those in this island nation did not know how to swim. Two powerful economic and cultural factors are at work: Swimming lessons are too expensive for all but the elite, and instilling fear of the water is a traditional parenting tool, reinforced by the local adage, “The sea has no branches” to hang onto.

But economics and culture did not daunt Eastwood, whose high-wattage and youthful personality is reminiscent of Peter Pan’s. “Swimming is a life skill, and every Grenadian should have the opportunity to learn to swim,” she says.

Her aim: teach this whole nation of 111,000 to swim. Free, year-round weekly lessons and two intensive National Learn to Swim Weeks rely heavily on volunteers and donations from abroad through the nonprofit Friends of GYA. The organization also trains and pays several dozen local residents to teach at beaches and hotels that offer the use of their pools.

Eastwood estimates that 2,500 children and adults have been taught by GYA, and her next benchmark is to teach 8,000 more by 2021. That number is not unrealistic, given Eastwood’s pace and success so far, says Veda Bruno-Victor, general secretary of the Grenada Olympic Committee, who herself didn’t swim until age 30. The GYA learn-to-swim program has jump-started interest in swimming here, she says.

It’s Eastwood’s “sales ability” that has “ignited” the swimming culture here, agrees Nataly Sihera, head swim coach at the Grenada Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Religious Affairs.

In 2005, Ms. Sihera started the first government swimming program, busing children from schools to the country’s sole public pool, a patched four-lane tank. Eastwood’s push has helped her program, Sihera says.

On a Monday morning in mid-July, nearly 400 youths of all ages – some jittery, some overconfident, all excited to meet their teachers – converged on beaches and pools around Grenada for National Learn to Swim Week.

“I want to swim to that ball!” yelled a goggled 7-year-old girl straining against an instructor’s grip toward a buoy bobbing in deep water off Grand Anse Beach. But, the child admitted, she’d never put her face in the water before.

By the end of five one-hour lessons in blowing bubbles, floating, and kicking, she and most of the students will be safe if they find themselves in water over their heads.

Pool noodles and goggles

More than 40 volunteers – including American college students and medical students from Britain – and several paid Grenadians taught three shifts a day for the weeklong intensive course. Eastwood unloaded dozens of donated kickboards, pool noodles, goggles, and lifeguard kits at several sites and then waded in at Grand Anse to support a couple of students learning to kick. Her cheerful bullhorn voice was discernible above the din: “Kick! Kick! Kick!”

Individual and institutional donors – such as the regional Republic Bank, the Grenada Olympic Committee, the New Zealand High Commission, the local Sandals resort, and the US-based Isabel Foundation – have helped keep Eastwood from going too deeply into the red. Donations have funded a 19-passenger van, lifeguard kits, swimming equipment, and marketing projects, and they also pay for local teachers and a South African part-time professional swim coach for the competitive team. Eastwood, aided by her husband, Phil Vermiglio, operates out of a rented home, relying on her pension and Social Security.

Six years ago, Jackie Joseph-Coutain was growing uneasy with her 5-year-old daughter Jalena’s exuberant efforts to swim, which included climbing into an oil drum full of water. A nonswimmer herself, Ms. Joseph-Coutain needed help. She had heard about “Miss Deb,” as well as “Beach Friday,” a weekly GYA playtime.

Eastwood taught both of them to swim. Jalena, now 11, even qualified for the Grenadian team going to an eastern Caribbean meet in Guyana this month. But Joseph-Coutain says that when she first saw Eastwood – a tiny, 5-foot, 2-inch blonde – jumping and playing with the youths, “I thought, ‘How come she come to Grenada to teach people to swim – what causes this woman to do this?’ ”

It’s a common question, says Lotten Haagman, a Swede who is on the GYA board and runs the SeaBreeze Hotel where many volunteers stay. Eastwood is unusual in her focus “on a group of children nobody ever cared about before,” Ms. Haagman says. She also respects Eastwood for openly praying for spiritual support to defy limits, whether they be financial, cultural, or related to age and gender (the latter two are persistent in this traditional culture).

So why does Eastwood do this? “Because I like being a kid,” she says. “This is not retirement for me, by any means.... I love Grenada because it reminds me of my childhood. The lifestyle here is so much freer and easier [than the one in the United States today].”

A longtime youth leader

Even in her early career as one of the first women jet-engine mechanics in the US Air Force and as a sales manager at Xerox Corp., Eastwood was a leader of faith-based youth groups, and along the way she “adopted” children in need.

In her 40s, she decided to take a one-year leave from her job at Xerox and her six-figure salary to work with Adventure Unlimited, a program based near Denver for Christian Science youths. She never went back, instead creating and running a teen leadership program for the organization and, while leading a teen group to the Caribbean, she discovered Grenada.

In 2007 she moved here to teach school, and she originally created GYA to offer free youth activities of all kinds.

With an athlete’s metabolism for the uphill push, she easily handles the small challenges such as mothers who tell their children not to get their hair wet when learning to swim or swim teachers who show up at 9:20 for a 9 a.m. class. And she cheerfully grapples with larger issues, such as funding ebbs and flows and her own high-gear, can-do style that can grate on this slower-paced business culture.

Ms. Bruno-Victor says she might advise Eastwood to “slow down, watch the [local] mentality, and [not ask] too many ‘whys.’ ” But, the Olympic chief adds, even if people do say, “ ‘Oh, it’s Deb again,’ ” pushing her programs, “she has been a tremendous benefit to the country – and people should just look at her style of teaching,” which has youths clamoring to come back.

Indeed, says Keith Johnson, managing director of the Republic Bank here, at first the establishment gave a small amount to support Eastwood. But he was so impressed with the huge turnout at a Beach Friday and the “optimistic energy” Eastwood exhibited that the bank doubled its original support.

The program, Mr. Johnson says, raises the international profile of Grenada through volunteer tourism, and it has increased the number of Grenadians with the swimming skills so important to marine and tourism industries.

Her biggest ‘problem’

Her success has created Eastwood’s biggest “problem.” GYA’s competitive swim team now has 40 members – four of whom made the national team last year. But, Eastwood says, “[an off-island meet] for one kid costs $1,000. For $1,000, I can run a Saturday morning beach site for the whole year teaching 60 to 100 kids. So I feel torn.”

She is looking for someone to hive off that competitive part of her program, because looking back, “I only wanted to teach learn-to-swim [classes],” she says.

And what keeps Eastwood chugging are memories such as that of a 70-something woman bellowing “Woo-hoo!” as she floated on her back for the first time.

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