Local swimmers help refugee kids learn to swim

Recent Lutheran High North graduate Justice Wenz said he learned the power of community when he was asked by a family friend to give swimming lessons to some Houston kids. The children were not his typical students, but refugees from Kenya, Iraq, Rwanda and Sudan.

The family friend who reached out to Wenz was Memorial resident Stacy Holden, who met the Sudanese Abdulaziz family through the nonprofit Houston Welcomes Refugees a number of years ago. In the time she has known them, she has also grown close to a few other families in the Southwest Houston apartment complex where the family lives.

It was on a camping trip to Inks Lake State Park that Holden and her family took with some of these kids when she realized that a number of them could not swim.

She called around about getting the kids lessons but found that swimming lessons didn’t come cheap. Then she had a revelation.

“I know a lot of swimmers,” Holden said.

She reached out to Wenz, who will swim on his college team in the fall at Wabash College, and to Mary Beth Witt, who heads up the Blue Marlins Swim Team at the White Oak Conference Center pool.

It turned out there were a number of teens who needed volunteer service hours and wanted to help. One of those was Candlelight Plaza’s Flinn Burrell, who taught two of the youngest girls.

“My favorite part was getting to know the kids,” Burrell said. “I looked forward to volunteering because I knew I would get to see the girls that I taught, and I was excited whenever they would show up. It was nice to bond with them through swim lessons.”

The group swam at the Candlelight Oaks neighborhood pool and a pool in the Fountainview area. Lessons were on Tuesdays and Thursdays in June and July and Holden would transport the students for their lessons.

“We kept the parents informed about what we were doing and I would send photos,” Holden said. “I was grateful for their trust.”

She said some of the kids got to show off their skills at a high school graduation party for one of the Sudanese teens.

“The older kids could dive,” she said. “I could tell the parents were so tickled.”

Wenz said about half of the 5- to 15-year-olds could dog paddle when they started, but the other half were non-swimmers.

“It was great to see them overcome their fears,” he said. “By the end some of them could swim up and down the pool. It was so cool to see (a) true community who came together for the greater good. I learned that nothing is too big or impossible for God.”

Added Burrell: “Through the swim lessons, I learned that I really like working with and helping kids.”

The students wrote letters at the end of the lessons, which Wenz has saved.

“Thank you for teaching me how to swim, dive and so much more,” wrote a refugee named Rachel. “You guys helped me become a better swim(mer) and I am so thankful.”

Said Wenz: “They were always having such a good time. They had so much joy.”

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