Ghana natives learn to swim at Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield


Photo Gallery | Photos of students from Ghana learning to swim

PITTSFIELD -- Eighth-grade brothers Kevin and Emmanuel Owusu are doing something they couldn't, they wouldn't do a month ago -- they're putting their faces in the water.

And they're diving into it head first, or doing the occasional cannonball. No longer are they flailing in the shallows of the pool at the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center on East Street, they're gliding through it. They're swimming.

Earlier this spring, their gym teacher, Jennifer Roccabruna of Herberg Middle School, announced that students would have the opportunity to participate in a May junior rowing program at Onota Lake, taught through the Berkshire Rowing and Sculling Society (BRASS).

The boys, who moved to the Berkshires three years ago from Ghana, were excited.

"I had never participated in a sport before. I wanted to try it out," Emmanuel said.

But the program required students to pass a swimming test, which included having to tread water and swimming down the length and back of the pool at the Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield without stopping. The Owusu brothers couldn't pass.

"We wanted to do it. We tried to swim, but we didn't really do so well," Emmanuel said.

Roccabruna saw the boys' disappointment and called Marie Ruel, aquatics director and instructor for the Gladys Allen Brigham Center, to see if she could help. Ruel said she quickly found an anonymous donor to cover the costs of the pool time, and two instructors to volunteer to teach them.

For the past several weeks, Kevin and Emmanuel have committed to lessons each Wednesday evening with Steph Butler and on Saturday mornings with Jennifer Sommerville, often accompanied by their younger brother Mark, a fifth-grader at Egremont Elementary School, and their Herberg classmate, Cristhian Herrera. Sometimes they get a ride, as coordinated through Gabriela Sheehan, who teaches their English as a second language classes. Sometimes the boys walk there.

This week, they made time, even after traveling for a class field trip, to make it to their lesson, accompanied by their father, Daniel Amenlemah.

"It's amazing to them, and they're doing well, I'm told, which I am grateful for," Amenlemah said. "They've been very happy to come here."

The father said he's taken his sons to local lakes in the summertime, "but I don't allow them to go far, because they don't have the skill."

Amenlemah said he never formally learned to swim, growing up in Ghana. "I lived by a river, and we would go in and get fish. I swam, I guess, but I had my own way of doing it," he said.

Both Butler and Sommerville said they've been impressed at how quickly the boys have progressed.

"They're very determined. One week, they'd be splashing around, barely moving. The next week, they'd be gliding through the water," Sommerville said.

"We have new swimmers, adults and kids, who come in at all levels. There are a lot of stories in this pool. Some are more reserved swimmers. These guys, they really want to get in there, they want to try," Butler said.

Last week, she worked on teaching the boys how to float on their backs, in case they tip out of a boat or get tired. The boys, showed Butler, Ruel and their father how they can now hold their breath, dive and swim down to touch the bottom of the deep end, about 10 feet.

Though they weren't able to participate in the spring rowing program, the Owusu brothers said they're still hoping to learn to row in the fall or next spring.

Asked how he felt about swimming now compared to his first time, Kevin Owusu smiled and nodded, "Better. Much better."

Details ...

To learn more about the aquatics program at the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center, contact Marie Ruel at (413) 442-5174, ext. 25 or

To learn more about the BRASS junior rowing program for novice rowers, visit or call for coach Lauren Miller at (413) 442-7769.


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