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Blackpackers nonprofit launches program providing free swim lessons to Colorado families

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Blackpackers aquatic program Colorado Springs

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Patricia Cameron has made it her mission to increase diversity in outdoor recreation.

Last summer, Rocky Mountain PBS caught up with Cameron after she hiked the Colorado Trail, 485 miles from Denver to Durango.

“It’s just been the case in this country that once the outdoors and outdoor recreation was commoditized,” Cameron told us at the time. “The most vulnerable tended to have trouble accessing it in the same way that others can.”

Cameron is the CEO of Blackpackers, a nonprofit that provides free gear and excursions to address the representation gap in outdoor excursions. Now, a new program from Blackpackers has a goal of teaching a valuable life skill: swimming.

Colorado VoicesBlackpackers swimming lessons

“I think a lot of people think that Black people don't like to swim. And while statistically they might be less likely to know how to swim, there is a historical context to it,” Cameron explained. “For instance, there is a history of segregation in pools; Black people weren’t allowed to swim in certain pools.”

Cameron said Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Some studies say that disparity is even greater.

[Related: How D.C. Schools Are Swimming Against The Racist History Of America’s Pools]

Rocky Mountain PBS reunited with Cameron earlier this month at SafeSplash in Colorado Springs, where Blackpackers was hosting its first-ever swim lessons. A total of 16 people received money to sign their children up for lessons.

Cynthia Gilder received $475 so her five children could learn to swim, something she wasn’t able to do as a child.

“My color had a lot to do with me not being able to swim,” explained Gilder, who is Black. “Because my mother wasn’t allowed in certain swimming pools … she didn’t learn how important it was to know how to swim. They just thought it was something that only white people had the opportunity to do, and they never even saw it as a life skill.”

In Gilder’s eyes, swimming is just as important as eating and breathing. But, she says, swimming is unique in that there are historic barriers around it.

“No one says you can’t eat because you’re Black,” she said. “No one says you can’t breathe air because you’re Black. But you were taught you couldn’t swim because you’re Black.”

Leon Williams, 37, and his 11-year-old son both received grants so they could take swim lessons.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Williams, who explained that growing up, he knew multiple kids who drowned because they didn’t know how to swim.

[Related: A mother’s determination to end a legacy of racial trauma started with mother-son swim lessons]

“I’m hoping to change what representation looks like, so people can stop saying ‘Black people don’t swim.’ I’m hoping to educate people [so] that they know there is context around this and that these things don’t arise out of a vacuum.”

Cameron and Blackpackers hope to expand their aquatics program so that at least 70 people receive enough money to cover swim lessons.

To learn more about Cameron’s nonprofit, click here.


Brian Willie is the Content Production Manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at brianwillie@rmpbs.org.

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