July 22, 2014

City swim program director retiring


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Longtime Red Cross swimming instructor Jean Minnella will be retiring at the end of the month.

Staff Reporter

After 35 years of teaching the children of Cortland water safety and how to swim, Jean Minnella will be stepping down as director of the Cortland County Red Cross’ Learn to Swim program after lessons end on Friday.
Minnella has been the director of the program for the last seven years but has been actively involved since 1979, originally starting out as a student aid and since then for three weeks during the summer, she has helped teach children and instructors alike how to be safe in the water at no cost to the children. Minnella said she got started because she wanted her son to learn how to swim in the program, but he was a few months shy of the 7-year-old minimum age requirement to participate unless one of his parents was a volunteer.
“We still do that today,” she said. “That’s how we get a lot of our new volunteers. And so I did that and I had previously taught swimming — I was a WSI (water safety instructor) in Syracuse and several other places before, so I was happy to get back into the swimming.”
She would continue to work as a swim aid and an instructor until the mid-1980s, when she started coordinating the swim program with Gail Phillips who died in January.
Minnella said during that time, she and Phillips began updating the program, using computers to store information about volunteer staff and student progress, helping modernize the program which has been around since the 1950s.
“We saw a need for this program to be organized a little better,” she said. “We always had, like, over 100 kids so keeping track of all the kids was really hard. It was Gail’s idea to put the kids in a database and to have it computerized so we could make a class list and track all of the kids.”
Outside of being a good way to be active and stay healthy, Minnella said one of the reasons she has continued to be a part of the program is because she thinks learning to swim is not just fun, it’s a necessity.
“To me, I think everybody needs to know how to swim,” she said. “I think it’s an essential skill. In this area there’s ... a lot of access to water and every year there are several drownings in this area so to me, it’s a basic skill that you should have.”
Michele Whalen, manager at the Red Cross of Cortland County, said the city’s Learn to Swim program is one of a few programs remaining that children have access to for free nationwide.
Whalen added she believes the program has helped save lives, and it is the continued commitment of Minnella and her staff that has made that possible.
“I’m just so happy that we have such a dedicated volunteer,” she said. “It really wouldn’t be possible without her direction.”
Cortland County Youth Bureau Director John McNerney said Minnella is one of the program’s volunteers who has been helping out since he joined the organization 26 years ago and said she will be missed.
“She’s been able to keep the Learn to Swim program free and probably most importantly, has taught children such an important life skill,” he said. “To be able to say she played such an active role in teaching 4,000 children to swim ... is amazing.”
Minnella said a couple of things she is going to miss is watching children progress from level 1 to level 6 of the program and hearing how excited and grateful their parents are when their children are finished.
“I really enjoy when parents come up to me and say, ‘Thank you, our children have learned a lot’.” she said. “That makes me feel that it’s worth it. And when I see the kids, too, accomplish the skills. It gives me some satisfaction to see the kids do that.”
But there will be time for her to experience a few more of those moments because even though she will no longer be the director, Minnella plans to volunteer her time as an instructor for at least a short while longer.
As far as the program itself goes, Minnella said she has some people in mind suited to take on the responsibilities as director, adding the program’s longevity can be attributed to the help she’s received from volunteers and instructors equally as dedicated as herself over the years so she’s not worried to let someone else take over.
“There’s so many people that are involved,” she said, “All the other instructors are very committed to this program. It’s in good hands.”

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