At only 10 years old, Angela Beale and her 11-year-old sister tried out for the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation diving team — without knowing how to swim.
“My sister told me to dive in, and flap my arms like a bird, and I’ll come up,” Beale said. “So that’s what I did.”
The young girls made the team. Beale, now a kinesiology professor, said the act first sparked her passion for swimming and ultimately landed her an athletic scholarship from Howard University. It also inspired her to create the water safety and swimming program A Stroke in the Right Direction.
The program is partnered with the American Red Cross and welcomes participants of all ages, focusing primarily on youth. The lessons focus on swimming and life skills like self-control, responsibility and respect.
A Stroke in the Right Direction is a continuation of Beale’s previous work with Project Guard: Make a Splash, a collaborative water safety education program with the USA Swimming Foundation, that she taught at Adelphi University in New York.
Beale, a member of the American Red Cross and the Scientific Advisory Board, said learning about alarming drowning rates fueled her interest in water safety. Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Between 1999 and 2010, African-Americans have died from drownings at a significantly higher rate than that of whites across all ages. The widest disparity is among those ages 5 to 18 years old, according to the CDC.
“You’re already a statistic when you’re born Black in America and your mom isn’t married, or if you’re a young lady who’s not pregnant by sixteen, or if you aren’t from a two-parent household,” Beale said. “Oftentimes when you have all those barriers, you try to figure out, ‘Where can I make my impact?’ And swimming opened the door for me to have those opportunities.”
In her work now, Beale wants to teach water safety specifically to people of color.
When Beale became the director of the kinesiology department’s Physical Activity Program, she instituted A Stroke in the Right Direction to fulfill the curriculum requirement of a community-based learning program.
“[Bringing in] the area of aquatics comes from my personal upbringing,” Beale said. “The idea of competitive swimming really helped save the lives of my sister and myself in the sense of the opportunities and the things we didn’t necessarily have growing up.”
Beale said she credits Temple students and adjunct faculty members for helping her create the program. Without their help, she said she wouldn’t have been able to do the correct research and find the organizations with which she collaborated.
Anne Wilkinson, the associate director for assessment, training and marketing at Campus Recreation and an adjunct kinesiology instructor, works as a research developer for A Stroke in the Right Direction.
“Knowing that this could help change the world is what sold me,” Wilkinson said. “We are giving these children the opportunity to see the world in a different light, and to feel achievement, to feel better about themselves and to just be excited.”
This past summer, A Stroke in the Right Direction collaborated with Masjidullah, a mosque on Limekiln Pike and East Washington Lane in Northwest Philadelphia, for a four-week summer camp. Beale taught 60 children between ages 5 and 13 the fundamentals of water safety. The previous summer, the program hosted about 150 participants from ages 12 to 18 years old in collaboration with Philadelphia City Rowing.
“Participants are not just learning how to swim,” Beale said. “No, that’s the easy part. We are getting the kids to sit, control their mouth, control their body, to listen and respect each other.”
A native of the North Philadelphia neighborhood Nicetown-Tioga, Beale began her swimming career with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation on a team coached by Jim Ellis. In 1972, Ellis formed the first swim team under the then-Philadelphia Department of Recreation. The creation of his team, which was comprised entirely of Black swimmers, represented a landmark event within the nearly all-white sport.
“Had I not had a coach like Jim Ellis or a community like Philadelphia Parks and Rec, someone that had that same desire to make a difference through a different physical activity medium, I don’t know where I would be,” Beale said.
“Giving someone the gift to swim in addition to confidence that translates outside of the water, nothing can compare to that,” Wilkinson said.
CORRECTION: This story previously misstated the mosque with which Angela Beale collaborated. It was Masjidullah in Northwest Philadelphia.