Ten years ago, at the age of 52, Fairfax resident Mark Liebert was itching to compete in his first triathlon.
He had one big problem, however. Make that two problems. “I hated to run and I didn’t know how to swim,” he says with a laugh.
Liebert, the owner of Western Espresso and Teas in San Rafael, eventually crossed both of those hurdles, so much so that he created the Sustainable Sports Foundation to put on the first Marin County Triathlon in 2008, and the organization has done so ever since.
Sustainable Sports also puts on local events like the Marin County Half Marathon (April 19) and the Marin County Swim (July 19). Each of those events has given all of its net proceeds to charities like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Cancer Fund and Sunny Hill Services.
But in 2013, Liebert sought to see more tangible results from those donations and shifted Sustainable Sports’ donation strategy.
“Even though the proceeds have gone to good causes, I had never seen who the money actually went to,” he says. “I wanted to see the faces of where the money goes.”
Enter the City of Mill Valley’s Recreation Department.
Director Jenny Rogers and her staff had been looking for innovative ways to create programs for low-income Marin residents, particularly via the city’s Aquatics and Fitness Center.
Liebert initially had contacted Rogers about the possibility of setting up his Western Espresso van at the end of Sycamore Ave. near the multi-use path. While that didn’t work out, Liebert continued to think about ways to give locally, and he drew on his own experience of learning to swim late in life. In doing so, Liebert learned of a CDC study that found that 37 percent of American adults said they couldn't swim 24 yards, the length of a typical gymnasium lap pool, and a University of Memphis study in 2008 that found that almost 54 percent of children between 12 and 18 can do no more than splash around the shallow end of a pool.
When Liebert expressed an interest in creating a swim program for low-income students in Southern Marin, Rogers connected Liebert with Kat Reisinger, the City’s Aquatics and Fitness Supervisor. The pair came up a two-week pilot program involving Marin City students. The program, which kicked off in August 2013, included transportation, a chaperone, snacks and some swim lesson supplies for each student. Once they arrived at the Aquatics Center, the students received discounted lessons from a team of qualified City of Mill Valley swim instructors.
The program not only teaches the students how to swim and to remain safe in, on and around the water, but it also inspires them to become physically fit and teaches leadership and life skills.
“Getting kids to learn how to swim is so key, especially at a young age,” says Felecia Gaston, the founder of Performing Stars of Marin in Marin City, which was part of the pilot program. “We’re surrounded by water and the ocean, so getting kids beyond their fear of it is very important.”
With beaming students getting comfortable in the water and a partner excited to expand the program, the Learn to Swim pilot quickly morphed into a full fall session of lessons, providing swim lessons to 10 students three times a week over a 10-week session.
To date, 36 students between the ages of 6 and 12 have come through the program, with some staying on for multiple sessions. The Sustainable Sports Scholarship Program, which recruits from youth organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and Performing Stars of Marin in Marin City and the Canal District in San Rafael, has picked up the tab in the form of more than $7,500 in scholarships.
“The students and their parents are thrilled, and the response from Mill Valley residents at the Community Center has been really positive,” says Liebert, a native of St. Louis.
“It’s such a feel-good thing when people see what we’re doing.”
Liebert has given Reisinger the green light to expand the program even further, hoping to include high school students and children eager to go beyond simply learning to swim.
“Our goal is to grow the program slowly but steadily so we can maintain high quality of swim instruction and a to create a real personal connection with all the students,” Reisinger says.
In addition to the continued expansion of the program for 6-12 year olds, Liebert has agreed to fund some 11-14 year olds for the Junior Lifesaver Camp, as well as a few participants in the Lifeguard Training program.
“The goal is not to just get these kids to learn how to swim but to become better swimmers once they’ve learned,” says Liebert, who was honored by the City of Mill Valley honored Liebert as a “community hero” at the California Park & Recreation Society’s District 1 Annual Awards Banquet in March. “I would love to fund a team or a club.”
Beyond the giant smiles of the students, the highlight to date, according to Reisinger, was when Liebert organized an appearance by four-time Olympic medal winner and three-time U.S. water polo world champion Heather Petri, who was born and raised in Oakland and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Petri handed out certificate of completion to 10 students who finished the eight-week swim scholarship program, drawing some television news coverage and providing a jolt of momentum for the program.
“I want to make an impact on reducing the number of people who can’t swim,” Liebert says. “Heck, I was one of them.”
Watch a video from ABC 7 News highlighting the program and Olympic champion Petri's visit to the program: