In fourth grade, Stacey Cotten-Victor jumped into a pool and started flailing. She'd never been taught to swim.
"I almost drowned," she says. "One of my classmates saved me."
When she became a mother herself, Cotten-Victor, now 49 and a high school teacher, kept her son from the water for years, to spare him her trauma.
"It became a full circle moment," she says. "I was putting him in danger, because if something was to happen, I couldn't even jump in to save him."
Then, while scrolling through Facebook last summer, she spotted an organization whose title caught her eye: Black People Will Swim.
Begun in 2019 on Long Island by Paulana Lamonier, a former college distance swimmer, the audience-targeted summer lessons take aim at sobering statistics about racial disparity in the water. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of Black children have little or no swimming ability. Alarmingly, the drowning rate for Black people is 1.5 times higher than white people, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; for Black children between ages 5 and 9, the rate is 2.6 times higher, and 3.6 times higher for those between 10 and 14.
"It's scary," Lamonier, 31, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "When it comes to how few of us are in the pool and in the sport of swimming, it's our mission to change that."
Johnny Milano Paulana Lamonier teaching Naomi Deshommes- Mercado
The reasons for the imbalance were many, she says. Some were practical, like the lack of access to lessons and high fees at privately owned pools. Some dated back to the segregation era, when non-whites were banned from pools. And some were the result of harmful misinformation.
"A client of mine said, 'Black people can't swim because our bones are too dense,'" recalls Lamonier. "I was like, 'Where did you hear that?' and then I learned that was a stereotype people had believed over the years."
"From that moment on," she says, "I realized that this was something that needed to be addressed."
Lamonier leads by example. The daughter of Haitian immigrants who settled on Long Island, she started swimming at an early age and remembers many of her Black and Latino neighbors did too.
For more on Paulana Lamonier's mission, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
"Everyone was taking lessons in our town," she says. "I'm really grateful that I never experienced feeling different in the pool."
She found similar diversity at CUNY York College, where she initially used the campus pool to stay fit but went on to join the swim team, competing in backstroke, butterfly and distance events. But when she was training for her American Red Cross instructor certification in 2019, she came to a disturbing realization: She was often one of only a handful of Black people in the water.
"That representation is vital," says Lamonier, who now works full-time as a university social media strategist while she teaches swimming in the evenings and on weekends, with the help of two other instructors. "When you see someone who looks like you, who talks like you, who understands where you're from, you're like, 'I see myself.' It encourages people to want to learn."
Petercov Denis Recent Black People Will Swim student Savannah Olivia Lafleur
Black People Will Swim now offers six-week swimming courses at an affordable price for adults and children at a rented residential pool in North Baldwin, N.Y. And interest is growing. Last year the program enrolled about 65 students; this year enrollment stands at 80 students.
"We're here to smash the stereotypes," Lamonier says.
Cotten-Victor, who took lessons last year, is grateful for Lamonier's purpose and patience.
"Getting over the trauma and fear is something she really helped me with," she says.
Ruth Thelusca, 31, a healthcare supervisor, also enrolled last summer, along with her husband.
"Of course there are Black people who do swim, who've been swimming their whole lives," Thelusca says. "I just happened to be one of the ones that didn't."
She's since signed up her mom, in-laws and her husband's sister for Lamonier's class, and is already talking about eventual lessons for her infant daughter.
"Our intention is to break that cycle," Thelusca says. "I think swimming is a life skill. And Paulana's an awesome teacher."
A planned future class will address how to care for Black hair in the water. And now Lamonier is negotiating the lease on a second pool on Long Island.
"Our students want to go on vacation and not be scared of going to the beach or going on boat rides," she says. "They want to experience life to the fullest. And my organization is a call to action: We will swim."