GREENSBORO — Practicing their kicks at the Star mount Forest Country Club pool on Wednesday, Sternberger Elementary's second graders churned out thousands of tiny splashes.
The school was added to Greensboro Aquatic Center's Learn to Swim program this week, thanks to donations made by the friends, family and co-workers of Mike Leonard, a volunteer who died in September at age 68.
Learn to Swim, which debuted in 2011 with four schools, has grown greatly in the number of schools it serves since then. The program provides two weeks of free swim lessons to Guilford County Schools second graders. Students visit various pools in the county for their instruction as part of the regular school day.
More than $75,000 was raised in Leonard's honor — enough to cover costs for both Sternberger and Lindley Park elementary schools for almost 10 years. Family members are expecting to hold annual fundraising events to keep the money flowing in perpetuity.
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Teacher Tamara Clarida said that while some of the Sternberger students have family memberships at pools or spots on youth swim teams, some children aren't as fortunate. For them, this was their first time in a pool.
"It's so important for them to be safe around water that I think every child needs to be introduced to it," she said.
Lindley Park was already participating, but with money from the fundraiser covering the cost, the program's executive director said it should be possible to add another elementary school next year. Susan Braman is optimistic that the program will be able to to cover all of the district's nearly 70 elementary schools within five years.
Amy Leonard, who is Mike's widow, attended a brief gathering at the Starmount pool on Tuesday along with two of the couple's three children. She said that her husband was an avid swimmer who did laps daily at the Greensboro Aquatic Center. One day, he came home and told her he was going to start volunteering with the Learn to Swim program. Amy said her husband was a private person, but she could see how much it meant to him when he got a big folder full of cards from the first group of students he helped.
"He was just so excited," she recalled. "I think the funniest thing is, he didn't really talk about it. He was just the type that you found out later that he had done something amazing."
Less than a year later, however, he came home from swimming laps, had a heart attack and died.
Amy said that Mike's friends created the Learn to Swim fundraiser in his honor and people rallied to the cause.
Braman said close to 1,000 people contributed.
"It truly blew my mind," Braman said. "It was not only heartwarming, but almost astonishing, and it made me go, 'This must have been one heck of an individual.'"
Jessie.Pounds@greensboro.com 336-373-7002 @JessiePounds