Dr. Jonathan Klein stands poolside at the Orange County Sportsplex, beaming with pride at the echoing clamor of laughter, screams of joy and splashing coming from the dozens of second graders from Central Elementary. It’s hard to believe that Klein, who is constantly moving and speaks excitedly, is savoring this moment.
It’s a moment that has been months in the making. An effort that is impressive just by the speed with which it has come together.
In June 2019, Dr. Charles van der Horst, a local legend, an avid swimmer and public health crusader, suffered a cardiac event and died during a marathon swim in the Hudson River. The loss of van der Horst was deeply felt by the local medical community and his swim friends.
Those friends, Klein among them, quickly began exploring ways to pay tribute to van der Horst. A memorial plaque to be installed at the Orange County Sportsplex was suggested, but that felt inadequate.
The group decided the best way to honor an avid swimmer who sought to better educate the public on health and safety was to create a swim program that would give young students the opportunity to learn to swim.
Klein looked to nearby Greensboro, which in 2012, used the Greensboro Aquatic Center in partnership with Guilford County Schools to create a successful Learn To Swim program.
The group soon after launched the Dr. Charles van der Horst Water Safety Initiative, also known as Swim for Charlie, a 501 (c) 3 tax exempt nonprofit charitable organization.
Klein, who is chairman of the board for the initiative, said it has been met with open arms at every step of the process, and every obstacle was cleared to make the program a reality.
Klein originally met with Randy Bridges, who was the interim Superintendent of Orange County Schools before Dr. Monique Felder became the permanent superintendent. Bridges voiced his desire to make the program happen, and Felder has picked up that commitment.
“Orange County Schools showed they had skin in the game,” Klein said. “They ponied up use of the buses and drivers to get the kids to the Sportsplex.”
With the transportation challenge solved, the Orange County Sportsplex offered the use of its pools. “We do this kind of thing for the community from time to time,” said Andrew Stock, general manager of the Orange County Sportsplex. “This, though, is close to our hearts.”
The Sportsplex is also supplying each student with a mesh bag for their clothes, towel and swim gear.
Klein said this type of program has been tried before in the area. And, while it had initial success, it lost momentum. Klein said Swim for Charlie has a plan in place to prevent that from happening.
“This is different because of our fundraising,” Klein said. “We’re paying a director and we’re paying all of the instructors.”
The director is Alexa Zollicoffer. Among the instructors are Dana White, Jerry O’Donnell, Dan Redwine, Morgan Holbrook, Dylan Twiddy and Cliff Gordon.
“Our goal was to initially raise $25,000,” Klein beamed. “This would allow us to have three schools participate this year. We raised $40,000. We’ll need to raise $70,000 to expand to all schools.”
The three initial schools have Title 1 status, which means the schools have large concentrations of low-income students, potentially creating another challenge of providing an opportunity to children who might not have bathing suits.
Again, Klein points to Swim for Charlie being different from past programs. “The funds we raise will also go to providing swimwear to any child who needs it,” he said.
Will Atherton, chair of the Orange County Schools Board of Education, was also poolside, proudly watching the Central Elementary students.
“What everyone involved with this program has done is clear every obstacle to give each student the opportunity to learn to swim.”
To say the program is off to a swimming success is an understatement.
“Look at all those smiling faces,” said Central Elementary Principal Jayme Bell-Williams. Later in the day, students from Efland Cheek and New Hope Elementary will have their time in the water.
Dr. Klein said the goal, ultimately, is to perfect the program so that it can be offered to and expanded into other counties in other areas of the state.
He becomes emotional when speaking about a young Goldsboro boy who drown last year in a retaining pond.
“He was the age of these kids here today. If he had this opportunity, it wouldn’t have happened.”
While teaching water safety is the primary goal of the Swim for Charlie program, Klein is quick to tout other benefits of learning to swim and developing those skills.
“These kids will build confidence. That will spread into other parts of their schooling,” he said. “Also, these are skills they will always have. In 10 years, some of these kids will be back here teaching other second graders. There’s a nationwide shortage of lifeguards and swim instructors.
“And they will be happier kids. As a doctor, I believe exercise and activity helps you mentally. Charles van der Horst used swimming as a way to help with depression,” Klein said. “He was much-loved in the swim community. To know Charlie was to love Charlie.”
And without doubt, Charlie would have loved what happened today.