Marshall mother of five helps hundreds of kids learn to swim for free each summer

Gina and her staff pose with students after a class
Gina and her staff pose with students after a class(JD Conte)
Published: Jul. 23, 2023 at 12:41 PM CDT
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LONGVIEW, Texas (KLTV) - Gina Hester has been teaching swim lessons for over 20 years, but five years ago, she decided she needed to step up to help prevent the all-to-familiar summer headlines.

“Drowning is the number one cause of fatality in kids between the ages of one through four. It’s most prominent,” said Hester. “We really strive to get these kids swimming and in the water from an early age.”

Hester founded Friends of Swim with Gina, a program that offers 100% free swim lessons for kids that may not otherwise have access. The program is funded through a combination of contributions from private organizations and parents who chip in small amounts. Hester said that in addition to the financial concerns around swim lessons, East Texans also have to deal with a lack of access to swimming facilities.

“A lot of cities that are equal to our size or smaller than our size have a YMCA, a city facility, public facilities for people to come and swim, bring their kids and come and get swim lessons. Unfortunately in our East Texas area, specifically in Longview and Marshall, this is a completely unserved area,” said Hester. “It’s one thing to not fix up a park or something else that we need, but not having water for these kids to take swim lessons, unfortunately, costs lives every year.”

Hester and her instructors teach hundreds of kids each summer, and everyone keeps coming back for more. Latissia Ventura has had three kids learn to swim with Gina, and her two youngest will as well.

“They’re so sweet to me. They help you depending on what you need. It’s very important because the kids need to know how to swim,” said Ventura.

The families aren’t the only ones coming back for more. The instructors, including two of Hester’s children, all learned to swim with Gina as kids and are now sharing their knowledge as young adults.

“95% of them have started in my program as a 3-year-old and some of them are in their 20s, still working for me,” said Hester. “They believe in what we do; they’re passionate about it; they’re passionate about saving lives.”

For the instructors, seeing the results of their work keeps them coming back.

“There was this girl who was terrified of the water. She wouldn’t get in; she wouldn’t get off the side. So anyways, I just started realizing that what I was doing was super important. That she could get in the water and feel confident for herself,” said Kaitlin Cheney, an instructor. “By the end of the lesson, she was jumping in the water and swimming to the other side of the pool.”

While Friends of Swim with Gina is a splashing success, the team wishes they could help more kids.

“I’m having to turn parents away because we either don’t have the time or the location or the staff to be able to continually meet this need. We are doing about 26 kids this week, and we have 30 next week just in Longview, and we always have a waiting list,” said Hester.

If you’d like to support Friends of Swim with Gina or sign up a child, visit their website.