AFFTON — Joyful shouts and laughter, the universal language of childhood, echo across the Affton High School pool on Saturday mornings when American teenagers teach dozens of refugee children how to swim.
The 12 volunteer coaches from Lutheran High School South, many from the school’s swim team, give weekly swimming lessons each winter to dozens of children ages 5 and older from seven African and East Asian countries.
Many of the immigrant children had never been in a pool or learned to swim before coming to the U.S. The high school students tragically became aware of the problem when their Lutheran South classmate Henry Manu drowned in the Meramec River in 2016 at age 18. Manu, who came to St. Louis from Liberia, did not know how to swim.
“Losing Henry was difficult for our community,” said Lutheran South athletic director Mark Linneman. “In some small way, this is a way to pay tribute to him.”
Soon after Manu’s death, his classmates contacted Christian Friends of New Americans to see how they could help. Manu had been involved with the St. Louis-based nonprofit that offers English classes, job training and other services to immigrant and refugee families.
Swimming is more central to American culture compared to the children’s home countries, said the Rev. Stanish Stanley, the organization’s executive director.
“It made us realize the lifesaving skills are very important for these new American kids,” Stanley said.
Volunteers from Christian Friends of New Americans drive the children to the Affton pool for the four-week session, which ended Saturday with a graduation ceremony.
“It’s fun swimming with your friends and meeting new people,” said Rhoda Mapenzi, 12, of Congo, a student at Long Middle School in St. Louis.
Swimming is a skill that high school students can take for granted, said Lutheran South senior Stephanie Kohm, 18. Watching the children go from clinging to the wall to swimming across the pool is rewarding, she said.
“They’re a lot more confident now,” she said. “It has been such a joy to watch.”
About 100 immigrant children and teenagers have learned to swim since the program started the winter after Manu’s death in June 2016. Manu would have been a senior that fall at Lutheran South, where he played varsity football. He and his best friend, Samuel Neal, 18, walked into the river on a Saturday evening near the boat ramp at Castlewood State Park. Neal, who attended Roosevelt High School in St. Louis, also drowned.
Trying to prevent drownings became a mission for Lutheran South students, said principal Jonathan Butterfield.
“Not only can our students address a critical need in our community, but they are fulfilling the purpose for which they were made,” Butterfield said. “This is yet another way that they can serve our neighbor with the gifts that they have been given.”
Isaac Asante, 16, said he never swam before coming to the U.S. in 2016 from Uganda.
“It was important to me to learn,” said Isaac, who attends Soldan High School in St. Louis. “If I know how to swim, I could survive.”