Teen activist across oceans makes swim school a reality

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Teen activist across oceans makes swim school a reality

Published on: February 26th, 2023

Sasha Minsky lives a thousand miles away, yet he has made it his mission to change lives in the township of Alexandra, Johannesburg. This 11th grader from Potomac school in North Virginia in the United States (US), and his father, Jeff Minsky, raised more than $20 000 (R358 158) in swimming kits for up to 200 disadvantaged children.

Not only that, but Minsky joined hands with King David Linksfield (KDL), which has granted young boys and girls from Alexandra access to its pool for swimming lessons, coached by Aquatics Gauteng instructors every Sunday in a 12-week programme. And so, on 22 January, the Alexandra Youth Swimming Academy (AYSA) was launched. Minsky came to Johannesburg especially for the event. He was joined by Linda Twala (known as “the father of Alexandra township” or Bab’Twala), KDL, Aquatics Gauteng, and the Alexandra Sea Lions.

So, how did a boy from the US come to create a swim school in South Africa? “My parents moved to South Africa for a few years and fell in love with the country. They gave me Mandela’s tribal name, Madiba, as my middle name to celebrate their time there. When I was looking for a community to help as part of my mitzvah project in the 8th grade, my dad suggested Alexandra.”

That mitzvah project led him to donate pre-loved baseball equipment to the Alexandra baseball club. “I wanted to continue my project, and was introduced to Linda Twala. He said that his dream was to teach the kids of Alexandra to swim because of the many drownings in the Jukskei River. As a competitive swimmer, I could relate to his vision, and thought it was something I could help realise. All we needed was equipment, a swimming pool, and instructors.”

Minsky spent a lot of time in Alexandra during the week prior to the launch. “We had the best possible tour guide in Bab’Twala, who showed us all the historic landmarks. We also saw parts of town that only a local would know. We went inside shacks, and stood on the bridge overlooking the river, where people had recently drowned. I even attended a day of school at Marlboro High, where 85% of the students come from Alex. All this made me feel that any effort to help the kids of Alex could make a difference in their lives.”

First, he set up a website called www.upliftthrusport.com in partnership with a Virginia-based swimming equipment supplier named SportFair. “The challenge was to drive traffic to this website, where people could donate funds by purchasing equipment. I set targets for each item, and SportFair fulfilled all the orders. I put together a YouTube video that encouraged people to purchase the equipment we needed (https://youtu.be/jJZkVsBpML4). I delivered this presentation to my school, and distributed it over email, social media channels, and other networks.”

His swim club “was extraordinarily helpful in promoting my project, and asked me to participate on a panel discussion alongside Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky. That gave me lots of visibility and attracted donations. I ultimately reached my goal of raising more than $20 000 (R358 158) to buy swimming equipment.” These swimming kits were awarded to Afrika Tikkun and AYSA beneficiaries.

“Over the years, hundreds of children have drowned in the Jukskei River, which periodically floods its banks after heavy rains,” says Afrika Tikkun Group Chief Executive Marc Lubner. “Afrika Tikkun has long wished to offer safety instruction as part of our community-focused approach. When asked to participate in this project, we realised we could play an important organising role, ensuring the programme’s sustainability. We’re about teaching life skills that enable youngsters to be become competent, courageous members of society. Overcoming challenges is all a part of that experience.

“We are fortunate to have passionate individuals like Sasha and his dad, and guidance from the best instructors. Together with our on-the-ground ability, we bring the best that’s available to kids who might otherwise be swept away, not just by surging rivers but by the torrid challenges that a life of poverty imposes as well.”

There are “way too many people to mention” that Minsky met on this journey who are making an impact. “So I’ll focus on just one person – Lawrence Ruele, who is Bab’Twala’s protégé. He’s a 30-something-year-old Alexandran who has made it his life’s mission to help the children of his community.

“Lawrence was raised by a Jewish family – I believe his mother was a domestic worker for them – and that naturally oriented him to work with the Jewish community. He made the initial introductions to KDL and Afrika Tikkun. Working through the COVID-19 pandemic and load shedding never seemed to deter Lawrence. I’m indebted to him.”

Meanwhile, “KDL has been amazing,” says Minsky. “I knew it was the ideal partner for this project, considering the school’s history of working with Alexandra, but I didn’t realise how truly invaluable it would prove to be. Use of its beautiful pool and the provision of much-needed transportation for the kids are key components of the programme.

“But it’s the school’s enthusiasm and kindness, shown by everyone from top administrators through to its incredible student population, that makes the real difference,” he says. “I spent a week at KDL and learned how fortunate we were to have the school as our core partner. I’m grateful to Principal Lorraine Srage, her team, and the students for demonstrating what public service is all about.

“Fatal drownings are unfortunately, a reality in South Africa, and with the Jukskei River running through Alexandra, teaching children to swim is necessary,” says Srage. “Sasha managed to get sponsorship from Speedo, Arena, and Harvard Business School, and donated more than 200 swimming costumes, boards, flippers, and more.

“Facilitated by Anthony Glazer, the chief operating officer of the South African Board of Jewish Education; Director of Sport Kirsty Forssman; and the Outreach and Avirah Committees, 50 children from Alexandra will be bused to the school every Sunday, and will be taught by professional coaches associated with Aquatics Gauteng.

“Leading up to the launch, spearheaded by Kirsty Forssman, we held a swimathon, which was supported by students, parents, and alumni. More than R100 000 was raised, which will cover the cost of a pool blanket that will keep the water warm well into autumn. I continue to be so proud of our students and staff for their tireless commitment to tikkun olam [healing the world].”

“There’s something special about the relationship between the South African Jewish community and the townships, particularly Alexandra,” Minsky says. “While there are too many people to thank, Rabbi Ricky Seeff, Anthony Glazer, and Marc Lubner stand out as key individuals who helped to make this project a reality and serve as role models.”

For Minsky, “This experience made me realise that making a difference in someone’s life is possible if you understand the purpose you’re trying to serve, persevere through roadblocks and discomfort, set achievable goals, and follow through to completion. It has definitely changed my life, and only strengthens my commitment to helping others.”