MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — In Michigan, you’re never too far from open water. But not everyone has the skills or opportunity to access water for recreation.

“Probably more of a bias against the underprivileged people. Swimming lessons used to be for people who had money, those people whose parents can afford it,” said Andi Switzer, program director at the Muskegon Heights YMCA. 

Minority groups face disparities that could limit their experience in water. Black children ages 10 to 14 drown 7.6 times more often than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dave Benjamin, executive director with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said that same report reveals 64% of African American, 45% of Latino and 40% of white children have few to no swimming skills.

In the past three years, 34 people have drowned in Michigan pools. At the lake, that number is higher.

“So far this year there have been 34 Great Lakes drownings — 13 of those have been in Lake Michigan,” said Benjamin.

Swim lessons are important, but not everyone has access and can afford them. Even then, education doesn’t mean a swimmer is safe from drowning.

“Sixty-six percent of all fatal drowning victims knew how to swim,” said Benjamin. 

Aquatic experts say water survival skills can be the difference between life and death. 

“Such as float to live, float to survive,” Benjamin said.

Muskegon Heights YMCA teaches a safety around water class for all county third graders.

“We bring them to a five week instruction of water safety. We teach a bit of swim lessons as well, but our main focus is teaching them how to be safe around water: learning never swim alone; reach, throw, don’t go; learning beach safety; how to get yourself out of a rip current if you are caught in one; how to get yourself out of the ice if you fall through one in the winter,” said Switzer. 

Muskegon Heights also offers swim lessons through their “splash program” on scholarship, or at a scholarship rate and has a class for students and parents. 

“It’s $10 for all five sessions for the whole family and they come five times, they get the instruction, they get in the pool, and then at the end of it they also get a free parking pass for Pere Marquette so that they can go enjoy our lake as well for free for the rest of the summer,” Switzer said. “It shouldn’t matter how much money you have, should be able to have safe fun around the water.”

At Muskegon Heights Public Schools, swim lessons are offered year-round based on income.

Experts also urge parents to never take their eyes off their children around water. Floaties are not recommended, as you can get pushed further into a body of water. Life jackets can truly save an adult or a child’s life.

“When we look at all the drownings that have happened in the Great Lakes, less than 1% of them were wearing life jackets,” said Benjamin. “We recommend that everyone go out and buy a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Make sure it fits properly not just for the kids, but also for the adults and you bring them to the beach with you.”