ATLANTIC CITY — Shirley Tucker sat on the side of the pool at the Martin Luther King Jr. School Complex one Thursday afternoon in May, watching two of her young great-grandchildren bob up and down in the water.

This is the first time her great-grandchildren, among dozens of other city kids, have been given the opportunity to learn how to swim in the resort town and how to save themselves if ever caught in rough waters, she said.

For free.

“My kids don’t know how to swim,” said Tucker, 70, of Atlantic City. “They need this. They really, really do.”

As part of a new pilot program in the city dubbed “Whelan’s Whales,” hosted by the owners of the Brigantine Aquatic Center, more than 115 students in kindergarten through eighth grade come to the pool at the MLK school during the week to learn how to swim.

The inspiration for the group and the name came from the late state Sen. Jim Whelan, a former Atlantic City school teacher and mayor who was also a lifeguard and swim coach in the city. He died in August at age 68.

“What we work on with beginners is mostly endurance,” said Robin Taylor, owner of the Brigantine Aquatic Center, who runs the program with her daughter Sari Carroll. “Rather than start to work on technique with children that really can’t swim, we work a lot on endurance to get their legs strong enough to hopefully save themselves.”

Drowning is the third-leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and Taylor said she takes it as her responsibility to provide a program for children to learn to swim and to teach them the “realities” of the water.

In New Jersey, 188 drowning deaths were reported from 2014 to 2016, according to New Jersey State Health Assessment data. About 1 in 5 people who die from drowning around the country is 14 or younger, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And rip currents were prevalent along this coast last summer. Friends Kaliy-ah Hand, 16, of Atlantic City, and Ramon Quinn, 15, of Pleasantville, went for a swim June 15, 2017, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, were pulled out into the ocean and drowned.

In July, a 2-year-old was found dead in a Galloway Township home swimming pool. A week earlier, a 4-year-old died days after being pulled from the water at Lake & Shore RV Resort in Ocean View, Dennis Township, and a 6-year-old drowned in a pool at Nantucket Inn and Suites on Ocean Avenue in Wildwood.

“It’s all of our responsibilities. It takes a village,” Taylor said. “There’s no reason for an island that’s totally surrounded by water to have children who don’t know how to swim and to be drowning.”

At the start of the 30-minute session, the kids arrive, grab a flotation belt, hop in the pool and work with the instructors, who are mostly volunteers. They’ll do about eight to 10 lengths of the pool, going back and forth in exercise and learning how to get their faces wet without being scared.

Brieanne Lewis, 23, of Galloway, is one instructor for the classes that take place twice weekly. Lewis said she has noticed working with the children that some are the only person in their family who has learned to swim.

Some are scared and cautious of the new environment, she said.

“I always try to instill confidence in them,” Lewis said.

The program started in the beginning of May and lasts seven weeks. Tucker said she has already seen improvement in her third- and fifth-grade great-grandchildren.

The idea came together less than a year ago, Taylor said, and included discussions with the Atlantic City Board of Education, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s office, the city and the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City.

The group is looking for sponsorships to help continue the classes into the summer, Taylor said.

“It’s my job — it’s our job — that we teach swimming lessons,” Taylor said. “We want it to keep growing.”

Contact: 609-272-7239 ESerpico@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressSerpico

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