More than a swim

Females-only swim brings together diverse cultures, views in Maplewood

A females-only swim time in Maplewood has become much more than an opportunity to get into the water.

Over the past two years, organizers have watched women and girls from a variety of backgrounds, religions and cultures find common ground while they learn to swim and enjoy snacks and conversation afterwards. The program, which is funded by the Educational Equity Alliance, even garnered an award in late 2013 from the Minnesota Community Education Association, and it continues to be a unique offering in the Twin Cities.

When the founders retired, Linda Napoli stepped in.

“There really was not other program like it in the east metro area,” says Napoli, the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district community education aquatics coordinator. “It’s really a need that’s out there that we’re able to fill or respond to. That’s why we really felt it was important to keep the program going.”

Identifying a need

It started when Barb Bellinger was still a first-grade teacher at Skyview Elementary School in Oakdale. Then known as Mrs. Asmussen, she asked her students’ families if she could share a meal with them to get to know them better.

Swimming came up while she ate with a Somali family with four daughters.

The older daughters, who Bellinger says wore hijabs and long black dresses, enjoyed swimming when they were children, but no longer swam in mixed-gender environments when they got older.

They didn’t have a place where they could swim while upholding their views on modesty.

“Would you like to?” Bellinger asked them.

“Well, we don’t mind,” the girls responded, according to Bellinger. “It’s our choice to wear modest clothing.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Bellinger told them.

She contacted the school district aquatics manager at the time, saying she wanted to start a females-only swim so girls and women similar to the daughters she met could have the opportunity to swim.

Pat Svendsen says she told her, “‘I think we could do it.’”

Svendsen worked for District 622 community education for 27 years until her retirement in July 2012. She thought the pool at John Glenn Middle School would be an appropriate spot, because it only had one small window that could be easily screened.

The first night, they had also planned a social hour after the swim time, but weren’t sure how many women and girls would actually show up.

“All of a sudden, there were 50 people in the pool,” Svendsen says. “We were so shocked.”

She says they quickly learned that it wasn’t only Muslim females from area cities who wanted to swim with just the girls.

“There was a church in Oakdale (that) shared that same modesty practice,” Svendsen says. “We met the needs of several different groups. Some people just come to swim where there aren’t men. It’s been quite a melding experience of a variety of women and kids.”

They found out last year that some women weren’t able to attend because they had to stay home with their sons. So, they added child care, where the boys could play games in the gym while their moms and sisters swam.

“That’s increased the number of girls going,” Svendsen says.

A simple, but meaningful, opportunity

Bellinger says she gets goosebumps when she reflects on what the program means to the women she’s gotten to know over the past two years.

“Some of the women have said that they often feel like outsiders,” Bellinger says. “They have said specifically that because we found a need and responded to that need, it made them feel like valued members of the community.

“It made a difference in how they felt in the community.”

It’s also about teaching parents and children water safety, Svendsen says.

“Because I’m a water safety instructor, it’s always my goal to get as many kids to learn how to swim as I possibly can,” she says. “Any parent or child that even has a little ability, that’s one less family or child that could have an accident around the water.”

Last spring, the swimmers insisted on organizing the social portion of the night, bringing in food that represented each of their cultures.

“Everybody was trying everyone else’s, too,” Bellinger says. “The conversations are very interesting because the women are finding out that they have more in common than they have different.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and Follow her at

For: Women and girls, including those who are unable to swim in a mixed-gender environment

When: 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on a Friday once a month during the school year. Next ones are March 21, April 11 and May 9. A social time follows the swim until 8:45 p.m.

Where: John Glenn Middle School, 1560 East County Road B in Maplewood.

Details: Child care provided for boys, who play games in the gym while females swim in the pool

Cost: $3 for adults, $2 for children and $6 for immediate family. No charge for the boys. Admittance not denied for those who can’t afford the fee.

‘Some of the women have said that they often feel like outsiders. They have said specifically that because we found a need and responded to that need, it made them feel like valued members of the community.

Barb Bellinger
founder of ‘Girls Swim Night Out


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