In the middle of the hot, Arizona summer, Tucson’s Sunshine Swim School recently closed its doors for good. Not only did children throughout the city have their swim lessons canceled, but most parents were not refunded what they paid. However, University of Arizona (UArizona) Campus Rec stepped up and answered the community’s call for help.
The department created a program called Operation Sunshine. The initiative features volunteer Campus Rec staff providing free swim classes to families affected by the closing of the swim school. They began the group lessons starting on Saturday, July 16 as part of the four-week program.
Classes are conducted at UArizona’s SouthRec facility, and over 60 children were present on the first day. However, around 130 children in the community are currently signed up for the program so more will be joining in the near future.
“Our department has a vision of a healthy community that values lifelong well-being and belonging, and our mission supports inclusive programming and collaboration,” said Drake Belt, the UArizona Campus Rec assistant director. “This initiative is 100% fueled by our mission-driven professional staff and facilities.”
Creating Operation Sunshine
Belt said he was at home watching the news when he saw the story of the swim school closing, leaving numerous families searching for answers.
“As a father and recreation and wellness professional, I could empathize with their frustration of losing out on not only the financial aspect but the developmental aspect of learning to swim,” said Belt.
So, he decided to act. While watching the story, Belt reached out to Dan Blumenthal, the assistant director of Marketing and Communication, and Yvette Damon, the associate director of Outreach and Development, via email to see if they could pull their resources together and support the community.
“Within 24 hours, Dan and I had a full-blown pitch to our director, Troy Vaughn, who was extremely supportive of the idea to assist those who were displaced by the closure,” said Belt. “We have professional staff donating their time to assist in teaching these lessons, and we chose a time that was already designated for programming as to eliminate displacing current users of our facility.”
Next, the department created a call-to-action in the community to encourage those who were part of the closure to register for the program. They also reached out via news stations who ran the story. To identify those affected, UArizona Campus Rec asked families to show they were previously part of the closed swim school by providing a registration email.
Importance and Reaction
Belt said the response from the community has been extremely positive. In addition, he said members of their student staff were very excited to hear about Operation Sunshine and help deliver an important life skill to the community.
“Many loved seeing the facility featured on the news and were able to feel a sense of pride in the type of work they are performing,” said Belt. “It is often hard to show student staff the positive change they can make in the lives of others, and this was a great opportunity to showcase the power of kindness.”
Operation Sunshine received a strong enough reaction from the community that Belt said the university president even tweeted about the story.
“There are studies that show participation in swim lessons can decrease drowning by up to 88% in young children,” said Belt. “We do not want families to join through fear but rather for prevention, fun and to learn a life skill. Our lessons empathize water safety, skill development progression lesson-to-lesson.”
Belt also had advice for campus rec departments who want to engage with their surrounding communities. While reaching out is admirable, he said teams first need to be creative and comfortable with taking action.
Once that strong base is created, then departments can begin improving the lives of others beyond college campus.
“We were fortunate to have professional staff members who have strong media connections and a foothold in the community via outreach. But you can do it as well,” said Belt. “If you want to be more involved in the community, you should start with your why and then act on it.”