Two years after teaming up on a pilot swim program for low-income students, Mill Valley Recreation and the Sustainable Sports Foundation are looking to take the successful program to the next level.

With that in mind, the organizations are hosting a Celebrity Doodle Auction – a live auction of celebrity “doodles” from the likes of Joan Baez, Jay Leno, Rosie O’Donnell and Neil Young, among others, to raise money for the Learn to Swim program. The event is set for Thursday, August 6, 6–9pm at the Mill Valley Community Center. More info and tix.

Mill Valley Recreation launched its Learn to Swim program in August 2013, offering transportation, a chaperone, snacks, some swim lesson supplies and 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.” 

Fairfax resident Mark Liebert, the owner of Western Espresso and Teas in San Rafael, launched the Sustainable Sports Foundation after overcoming his own inability to swim and wanting to put on the first Marin County Triathlon in 2008. 
Sustainable Sports also puts on local events like the Marin County Half Marathon and the Marin County Swim. 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.” 

He’d 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. 

Liebert eventually connected with the City of Mill Valley’s Recreation Department and Kat Reisinger, the City’s Aquatics and Fitness Supervisor. The pair came up a two-week pilot program involving Marin City students.

“The students and their parents are thrilled, and the response from Mill Valley residents at the Community Center has been really positive,” says Liebert. “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. 
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, dozens of students between the ages of 6 and 14 have come through the program, with some staying on for multiple sessions. Now the program includes
sponsoring Adaptive Needs Swim Lessons through PAASS NonProfit Organization, the first partnership of its kind in Marin.

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 several thousands of dollars in scholarships. 

“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. “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.” 
All net proceeds from the Celebrity Doodle event give children from low-income families in our community the chance to learn to swim and how to be safe in, on and around the water. 

The 411: The Celebrity Doodle Auction features a live auction of celebrity “doodles” from the likes of Joan Baez, Jay Leno, Rosie O’Donnell and Neil Young, among others. Thursday, August 6,6pm–9pm. More info and tix.

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