Cameron Wollenschlager, a 17-year-old junior at Proviso East High School in nearby Maywood, climbed dripping out of the high school’s swimming pool. It was the last day of a five-week Red Cross lifeguard and training certification program provided through a partnership between the Oak Park-based West Cook YMCA and Proviso Township High Schools District 209.

“Before I started this program, I wasn’t that strong of a lifeguard. I didn’t get the basics, but as we progressed, it got much easier and the ideas and concepts came much more fluent to me,” Wollenschlager said, moments before he received the certificate that will allow him to interview, and likely land, a lifeguard position at one of the YMCA’s numerous aquatics facilities, or to apply for a lifeguard job somewhere else if he chooses.

But the Maywood resident, along with the program’s 10 other participants, all Proviso East students, has his sights set on lifeguarding at his hometown’s sole public swimming pool — the Fred Hampton Aquatic Center. Since 2013, the West Cook YMCA has split the costs of operating and maintaining that pool with the village of Maywood.

This year, thanks to this lifeguard training, the pool is poised to employ more local residents than it has in many years and, after the district puts a second class of certified lifeguards through training next fall, East will be able to finally start offering swimming instruction again.

The school hasn’t offered swimming lessons because there aren’t enough certified personnel to man the pools during classes, said Tracy McCormick, PE department chair at East.

“Part of our vision is to embrace partnerships because they add value to the work we do,” said District 209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez. “That’s one of our core beliefs. We want to eventually scale up and enhance this.”

Phillip Jimenez, West Cook YMCA president and CEO, said his organization’s involvement with D209 will help ease the demand for aquatic space currently felt in Oak Park.

“We’re always struggling to find great lifeguards,” said Jimenez, “so we said, ‘Why don’t we produce them out of Proviso East?’ It’s not just a life skill, but it’s also an economic and employment opportunity.”

He added that the YMCA is also exploring a facility sharing arrangement with the district, so that some of the organization’s aquatics programming, such as family pool time and competitive swimming, can be offered at East in the future.

Joann Kouba, a registered dietician and faculty member at Proviso East, said the partnership between the school and the YMCA came about from a meeting with members of a local health-conscious organization called Proviso Partners 4 Health and the school’s Community Wellness Committee.

“Through the years we realized that we have to expand our programming,” Kouba said. “Wellness committees are a USDA mandate; every school district in the country is supposed to have a wellness policy and committee. They’re specifically all about obesity prevention.”

Kouba said that, during a meeting last fall, someone suggested that utilizing the school’s pool would be a way to provide more physical activity options for students.

“When we learned that the pool wasn’t in use because of the lack of certified and trained staff, we said, ‘Let’s fix that,'” recalled Shanika Blanton, a PP4H member.

“So we talked to students and asked them if they wanted to swim, but many didn’t even know there was a pool at Proviso East,” Blanton said. “The only people using it were teachers who swam in it after work and ROTC.”

East Principal Patrick Hardy, Rodriguez and McCormick instantly warmed to the idea, while three D209 board members approached Jimenez with the possibility of a formal partnership. Soon afterward, the collaboration had legs.

Which has given Christian Palomares, a 16-year-old Maywood resident, an opportunity. 

“I’m excited,” said Palomares, who is looking forward to working his first job as a lifeguard. “I want to learn as much as I can.”