PROSSER, Wash. -- Michael Phelps had quite the week, earning more medals than any other athlete in Olympic history. But there is a group of kids who adore the incredible swimmer for more than just his skills in the pool.
"We have the TV on, and they all watch him. They have a personal interest in him, in fact they made up signs on their shirts, supporting the USA Team," says Ron McHenry, the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club in Prosser.
McHenry says Prosser was very lucky, when two years ago their club applied for a grant from the Michael Phelps Foundation for his "im" program.
The "im" program, is a learn-to-swim program designed to grow the sport of swimming and encourage a healthy, active lifestyle, among children. It was launched as a national pilot in 2010 with six Boys & Girls Clubs and has instructed more than 2,300 children how to swim, with more than 80% of the participants receiving swimming instruction (im safe) for the first time in their lives.
"We're one of the original 15 clubs that were selected last Summer. So we're in our second summer, and last year we served 106 kids in the program," says McHenry whose organization received a grant for $18,000 last year and $12,000 this year.
McHenry says there's a good reason the small Prosser branch was chosen. "Washington has the second highest rate of drowning in the country for youth. And so you look around in our area and we have canals that our migrant students get into, and they're fast moving and they don't have the ability to swim.'
One of the kids affected by the program is 11 year old Felipe Hurtado, who was terrified of the water until last Summer. "My cousin, when I was at a pool party with him, he took me under water at the deep end I've been afraid of the water ever since." With the help of McHenry and the trust of the staff, Hurtado slowly started taking advantage of the program.
"He eventually got in the pool. He progressed through his lessons better than anyone else. He got his deep end test passed. He started doing swim team. He gained confidence in himself. He made new friends and we started to see a great change in him," says McHenry.
This year the swim team has 50 members. They have games twice a week, and even do virtual competitions, comparing times with other Boys & Girls Clubs across the United States.
In 2012, the "im" program expanded its footprint to 28 Boys & Girls Clubs, including one on a U.S. Naval installation in Naples, Italy.