Children love summertime: between school being out, warm temperatures, and ice cream, fun activities are everywhere. But this season also brings with it health and safety issues that can’t be ignored. And for children of color and kids in rural areas, structural inequities and barriers to healthcare make seasonal health concerns much more hazardous.
We spoke to Dr. Gary Kirkilas of our partner program, the Phoenix Crews‘n Healthmobile, where he and his team provide free medical care to young people and families experiencing homelessness. Here are some of the most important summertime health and safety issues affecting children in the communities he serves and across the country.
Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death for all children ages 1-4
The risk of drowning is high for children of all races, but Black children ages five to 19 die from swimming pool drownings at a rate 5.5 times higher than white children in the same age group, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While 40 percent of white children have little or no swimming ability, the rate is 64 percent for Black children and 45 percent for Latinx children.
These inequities have historical roots. For years, Black people were excluded from swimming pools and beaches and were often violently harmed for wanting to swim. Generations were robbed of an essential life skill. These and other factors contributed to what writer Imani Bashir calls “intergenerational trauma surrounding Black people and swimming.”
“Eventually, everyone will have contact with water,” says Dr. Kirkilas. “I like to think of swimming lessons like reading and riding a bike: it should be a life skill that everyone should have.” Equipping caregivers with knowledge on the importance of water safety is essential to children’s health, and swimming lessons should be accessible to children in all communities. But progress cannot be made on reducing disproportionate drowning deaths of children of color without addressing other systemic issues as well. “Families have so much going on. I always encourage caregivers to get free swimming lessons. I know it’s often not high on the list if you’re coming from a situation of homelessness or low income, but it could be a lifesaver,” says Dr. Kirkilas.
The benefits of nature are off limits to many children
Open spaces, forests, green areas, and parks give kids a place to move their bodies and enjoy the beauty of the natural world. Time spent in nature can help reduce anxiety and other mental health issues. The benefits of nature are the right of every human being and a necessity for life, but are completely inequitable in the US.
Communities of color are three times more likely to have less access to nature through safe green spaces, parks, and coastlines, according to a report from the Center for American Progress and the Hispanic Access Foundation. Seventy percent of low-income communities have fewer natural spaces like forests, streams, and wetlands. Families with children are particularly impacted. Climate change and degradation has fallen hardest on these communities, where children experience higher exposure to air and water pollution, leading to elevated rates of asthma and even COVID-19 deaths.
Dr. Kirkilas’ patients know this reality. Families say that transportation is a big barrier to accessing nature, and so is safety. Even for those who live near parks, fears of gang and drug activity keeps families from visiting them. “It’s really hard to address that. And so a lot of kids end up just hanging out in their rooms,” he says.
This issue is also rooted in racist and discriminatory systems, dating back to the dispossession of land from Indigenous people, and continuing through housing segregation, redlining, and other policies that excluded Black, Indigenous, and people of color from natural areas, parks, and public lands.
Findings have shown that “every dollar spent on creating and maintaining park trails can save almost three dollars in health care alone.” As rising temperatures increasingly affect our daily lives, green spaces can help to mitigate some of its impacts: wetlands can protect against flooding, and natural spaces can cool urban areas and filter the air. This is critical as temperatures rise so that kids don’t suffer even more.
Our partner providers like Dr. Kirkilas provide kids and youth with essential primary care, but they know that truly nurturing their health also requires resources and policies to address deeper inequities. As front-line providers, they often help link children to support for other areas of their health and safety, and many help to push for policy change to address the systemic causes of poorer health.
All children should be healthy and safe during the summer. Thank you for believing in our partner providers who every day do more than provide healthcare–they deeply care that children are able to experience joy and wellbeing in all aspects of their lives.