Drexel University, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and Fab Youth Philly Partner for Teen Lifeguard Training

To fill Philadelphia's need for lifeguards at City pools this summer, a public-private partnership was created to train 13 local teens for the positions while providing employment and professional development opportunities.
A teenager in a FAB Youth Philly backpack sits by the Drexel pool for training during this 12-week experience. Photo courtesy Rebecca Fabiano.
A teenager in a FAB Youth Philly backpack was photographed by the Drexel pool during a 12-week training experience. Photo courtesy Rebecca Fabiano.

With the opening of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation's public pools this month comes a need for lifeguards to protect swimmers. Since 2021, a national lifeguard shortage has caused some pools to close. A new partnership between Parks & Rec, Drexel University and the youth workforce development organization Fab Youth Philly (FYP) has trained and graduated 13 local teenagers that are all starting summer jobs as lifeguards for the City this year.

The public-private collaboration lasted over 12 weeks of training for teens, aged 15 to 19, at the pool in the Drexel Recreation Center, courtesy of Drexel Athletics, with a certified trainer from Parks & Recreation. Drexel's Office of University and Community Partnerships, through the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood initiative, outfitted the teens with apparel including bathing caps, goggles, bathing suits and flip flops. Fab Youth Philly provided workforce development programming so the young people learned how to apply for a lifeguard position, create résumés and LinkedIn profiles. A physician and three residents from St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, which Drexel co-owns with Tower Health, completed the physical exams the teens needed to apply for the lifeguard position during a weekend visit at the Community Wellness Hub in the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.

The teens were paid $10 an hour during the training. Funds were provided by the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood, a US Department of Education-funded program operated by Drexel to create “cradle to career” opportunities for children living or attending schools in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone. The West Philadelphia Promise Zone is a two-mile area from 48th Street to the Schuylkill Banks and from Girard Avenue to Sansom Street. 

“This lifeguard training program serves as a powerful model illustrating the strength of partnership (both internal and external) and community and how one program can meet many needs,” said Rachel Viddy, project director of the West Philly Promise Neighborhood. “The limited number of City pools scheduled to open over the past few summers is connected to the lack of trained lifeguards. Teens in our community need opportunities to develop workforce skills and find summer employment.”

Participants training in Drexel’s pool. Photo courtesy Rebecca Fabiano.

Participants training in Drexel’s pool. Photo courtesy Rebecca Fabiano.

Because of the experience, high schoolers had a place to go after school and were paid for the training they received to gain skills and become strong job candidates. Barriers to pool access, learning the ability to swim and having the appropriate apparel necessary to swim and train were removed through the partnership. In addition to receiving jobs as lifeguards this summer, the teens also realized a lifetime skill and a certification that can be continually renewed for employment elsewhere. All of them have been hired as lifeguards and will be paid $16 an hour. 

“We know that young people who are employed as teenagers have a greater lifetime earning than those who are not, and they're also more employable as adults,” said Rebecca Fabiano, Fab Youth Philly president and founder. “So, it's really important to us that we create opportunities that meet young people's developmental needs, financial independence and career exploration.” 

Fab Youth Philly has been working with Drexel for the last five years as a grantee of the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood and has an office at Drexel's Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, said Fabiano, who had the idea to start this new project. It was a natural fit, Viddy said, and it made sense that this project would find a connection within Drexel's community-facing network, including the West Philly Promise Neighborhood, Drexel Athletics and the Wellness Hub at the Dornsife Center. 

According to Fabiano, many of the participants said they wanted to make sure kids have a safe place to swim in the summer and were also very community oriented. About a third of the group is from the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, she said. The new lifeguards can now staff pools that might otherwise not be able to open. In neighborhoods struggling with gun violence and the urban heat island effect, a free public pool provides a safe space for people to cool down. Because of the lifeguards trained through this collaboration and hired by Parks & Rec, the City was able to open one pool in West Philly that had been closed for the past three years due to lack of staff.

Some of the teenagers who participated in the training. Photo courtesy Rebecca Fabiano.

Some of the teenagers who participated in the training. Photo courtesy Rebecca Fabiano.

“Drexel Athletics is proud to continue and deepen our partnership with the West Philly Promise Neighborhood,” said Drexel Director of Athletics Maisha Kelly. “Impacting our neighborhood is a high priority.” 

For Kelly, this experience was also important for her on a personal level.

“As someone who swam for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR) Swim Team out of the Sayre Morris Recreation Center pool and attended PDR swim camps at Memorial Hall, I know that the value of having pools accessible goes beyond the initial recreational enjoyment,” she said. “These lifeguards are assuming leadership responsibilities that will suit their development, while paving a way for others to engage in the community and gaining skills that can last a lifetime.”

At the end of the 12-week course, teenagers took a test to demonstrate that they could potentially be a lifeguard and pass the lifeguard course required by the City for employment. This includes swimming 300 meters (or 12 laps) without stopping, diving 13 feet deep to retrieve a 10-pound brick and then swimming backwards on their back while holding it to their chest, and treading water for two minutes without using their arms.

The next steps for the program include providing a similar training experience in the fall for a new cohort. Fabiano is also hoping the partnership will expand to include the Philadelphia School District, so that the teens' experience would fulfill their graduation requirement for completing a service-learning project addressing real-world needs at school or in the community.