Russell Walker and his friends loved to swim when they were growing up in South-Central Los Angeles.
They swam at city and county pools every summer day, walked for miles to the area's only pool open during the winter, joined the Marlins, a predominantly black amateur swim team, and competed at Jefferson and Dorsey high schools.
At the suggestion of a teammate at Mt. San Antonio College, Walker eventually parlayed his love for the water into a career as a Los Angeles County lifeguard. His friends, many of whom moved out of state on swimming scholarships, did not.
Now a lieutenant in charge of Zuma Beach, the Oxnard resident is the only black permanent lifeguard in the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, where he has worked for 22 years.
He said he was an "average competitive swimmer" who wound up in a career he loves not because of his outstanding skill but because someone told him about the opportunity.
"There were a lot of other kids out there that, had they known about it, would have been successful at this job," he said.
At Walker's urging, the Department of Beaches and Harbors and Brotherhood Crusade, a grass-roots community organization, last summer started the Water Awareness, Training, Education and Recruitment (WATER) program to encourage inner-city youngsters to pursue water-related careers.
The program's activities range from day camps at Marina del Rey--where children ages 7 to 9 can visit tide pools and work on ocean-related crafts--to lessons in boating, snorkeling and scuba diving.
There are also tryouts for the county's junior lifeguard program, a five-week course that teaches 10- to 17-year-olds the basics of surfing, Boogie-boarding, first aid, CPR and recognizing dangerous situations in the water.
"I think these (inner-city) kids are no different than any other kids except that they have fewer choices," Walker said in an interview at the Santa Monica lifeguard headquarters.
"They get very little opportunity to come out here because of where they live and their economic situation."
Walker said his job as a lifeguard is within reach for many minority youngsters, even those who aren't the swiftest of swimmers.
"I was never what you considered great," said Walker of his swimming skills. "But I'm wearing this uniform. And because I'm wearing this uniform, I know other kids can do it, too."
Anne Cephus, a special assistant with the Department of Beaches and Harbors, said about 100 youths and their parents turned out for a WATER-sponsored swim meet and junior lifeguard tryout at the city swimming stadium in Exposition Park last Sunday. Only one of the youths was not a member of a minority group.
Fifty-seven of 86 boys and girls swam fast enough to qualify for the junior lifeguard program, she said.
Fees to be Paid
Cheryl Dixon, corporate relations director for Brotherhood Crusade, said the community organization will pay the $105 junior lifeguard program fee for each of the 57 youngsters who qualified, and the cost of busing them to Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach, where the program is held.
Cheryl Broussard of Inglewood said the program already has rekindled her 13-year-old son's interest in swimming.
She said her son, Lance, is an excellent swimmer but his interest in the sport had been waning until she showed him an article she had read about the recruitment program.
"Once I read that article I felt like running out and start swimming then," Lance said.
He attended the junior lifeguard trials and swam the fastest 100 meters in the division for 12- to 13-year-olds. He wants to become a lifeguard.
"He does have a skill and it would've gone dormant if it weren't for this particular program," said Broussard, adding that her 9-year-old daughter, Laura, wants to join the swim team at Jesse Owens County Park next fall.
Walker, 40, said he hopes the program will dissuade youths from joining gangs or becoming involved in other criminal activities by presenting them with a positive alternative.
Asked how swimming would prevent a youngster from joining a gang, Walker replied: "If you work out hard every day, you're going to be too tired to do anything else."
Walker said he was "shocked" when he heard former Dodger Vice President Al Campanis' statement that blacks do not have the buoyancy necessary to become good swimmers.
WATER was already in existence when Campanis made the statement in April, Walker said. Although the remark upset him, he saidit may have been helpful "because we're able to demonstrate that this kind of thinking is wrong."
Ted Reed, director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors, said his department and the South-Central Los Angeles community will both benefit from the program by deepening the pool of minority lifeguard candidates while exposing youths to wider career opportunities. "If 15 years from now, someone is a marine biologist by being turned on by this program, it will be worth it," he said.
Eric Bourdon, an assistant director at the department, said that of 107 permanent lifeguards, 102 are Anglo, three are Latino, one is black and one is Asian. Three are women.
Walker said the department also employs four black part-time lifeguards, one of whom is a woman, and he hopes that his program will lead others into what he considers a very satisfying and well-paying career.
Part-time lifeguards, who work mainly during the summer, start at about $1,600 a month, while permanent lifeguards start at $2,000 a month, Walker said.
Walker, who also works as a commercial artist, said he makes about $3,600 a month as a lifeguard.
The WATER program is now working out of four South-Central Los Angeles pools: Jesse Owens County Park, 9835 S. Western Ave.; Roosevelt County Park, 7600 Graham Ave.; Angeles Mesa YWCA, Vernon and 4th avenues, and Weingart YMCA, 9900 S. Vermont Ave.
Walker said WATER is also working to start swimming programs and teams at George Washington Preparatory High School and Bethune Junior High School.