The achievement wasn’t of Olympic proportions. But the joy was.
To explain all the whooping, hollering and hand-slapping by those youngsters from Helena, Ark., on a recent Saturday afternoon in Memphis, you must go back to earlier in the summer.
A main element of the All Church Challenge, an outreach program for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Ben and Leonora Newell’s Together for Hope project in Helena, was a swim camp. Twenty-seven mission teams from Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Virginia and North Carolina worked in various projects in one of the poorest communities in the United States.
The camp, which has been a staple of the summer for six years, served 393 youngsters this summer, teaching them the basics of water safety and how to swim at the community pool that mission teams in summers before had helped renovate.
“We thought we had some pretty good instructors,” Ben Newell said. “A lot of the youngsters really improved in their skills.”
Six of the best campers were selected to participate in a competitive recreational meet in the 10-12 age division at a Memphis YMCA a couple of hours away.
“None of these swimmers had ever swum in a meet before,” Newell said. “Some of them had just two weeks of instruction.”
Getting there was an adventure.
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Team Helena was scheduled to leave at 6:30 Saturday morning, but only the Newells’ two sons, Nate and Lucas, arrived at the community center at the appointed departure time.
The frantic roundup began.
The Newells had to drive to each of the youngsters’ houses to locate them, most of whom had overslept. They found five of six.
The sixth (we’ll call him Joe) was a mystery. Because of a variety of family situations (including people under the influence of drugs and alcohol), Joe stayed at a different house every night. Finding him would require a needle-in-a-haystack sorting through relatives and friends.
Just as the search was intensifying, Joe’s father was spotted pulling into a gas station. Ben Newell pulled the van over and ran to him. The father took the group to where Joe had spent the night. He hurriedly got ready and the group was finally off.
Team Helena arrived at the meet an hour late but gave a good account of itself. It won two first-place ribbons, three second-place, one third, two fifth and one sixth.
“We actually did really well considering our experience,” Ben Newell said. “We competed with the other YMCA teams.”
The climactic event was the 100-yard individual medley. Each of four swimmers must swim a 25-yard leg of different competitive strokes – backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle.
“It’s a tough relay because most of the strokes are not natural to kids learning to swim,” Newell said. “When a kid first starts swimming, he just jumps in the water and moves his hands and feet, whatever is necessary to move along. You have to have a kid swimming each of the strokes. Our instructors this summer had taught them technique. This was a tribute to them.”
Team Helena fell behind during the backstroke, but steadily gained. When Cortez Frankland surged on the anchor leg, he was able to touch out his closest rival by a narrow margin to win the relay for the Helena team. The team it defeated on the relay belonged to the overall champion of the meet.
“All of us and the kids just went crazy,” Newell said. “Talk about getting excited. It was like Michael Phelps.”
Afterward, the group celebrated and played games at a Memphis pizza parlor.
When they returned to Helena, at least two of the young boys approached the Newells and said, “Best day of my life!”
It was a high-water mark for a lot of folks.
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.