Free Swim Lessons For Refugee Children

Lutheran South initiative began following the drowning of immigrant Henry Manu

The Lutheran South High School girls swim team has partnered with Christian Friends of New Americans to provide free swim lessons to refugee children in St. Louis.

The initiative was inspired after the death of Lutheran South student Henry Manu. Manu was 18 when he and his friend, Samuel Neal, 17, drowned in the Meramec River at Castlewood State Park in June of last year. Neal attended Roosevelt High School in south St. Louis.

Manu, an immigrant from Africa who lived with his grandmother and aunt, was supported by Christian Friends of New Americans when he arrived in the United States.

The student body and faculty at Lutheran South were devastated by the tragedy. Manu had survived and fled war-torn Liberia 10 years earlier, only to drown in the Meramec River while attempting to have some summer fun.

Lutheran South High School student Riley Schelp teaches basic life-saving skills to refugee children in St. Louis. The four-week program is held at Affton High School. Photo by Ursula Ruhl.

While attending Lutheran South, Manu played football and was part of the wrestling club. Following his death, Lutheran South Principal Brian Ryherd described Henry Manu as “a young man who possessed great faith.”

“Following Henry’s death, the people at Christian Friends of New Americans wanted to find a way to teach refugee children water safety skills to prevent drowning episodes in the future,” said junior swim team member Riley Schelp.

The goal of the program is to teach basic life-saving skills, such as how to float and how to tread water.

“For those with no to little experience, we are just trying to get them comfortable with the water, so in the case of an emergency they don’t have to panic and they’ll know what to do,” said Schelp. “For the more advanced kids, we introduce them to the different types of strokes and drills.”

The four-week program takes place on Saturdays at 2 p.m. at Affton High School. The first session, held on Saturday, Feb. 18, had 35 kids in attendance.

“Refugee children ranging in age from 5 to 15 participated in the first lessons. They learned to blow bubbles, float and tread water. By the second lesson some were jumping into the shallow end, and a few even managed to swim across the pool,” said Schelp.

James Momoh from Sierra Leone has fun in the water during a March 4 swim lesson conducted by the Lutheran South High School girls swim team. Photo by Ursula Ruhl.

In addition to swim team members, more than a dozen other students from Lutheran South are helping with the project under the direction of faculty member and lifeguard Cathy Wietfeldt.

Pool rental costs are being offset by a memorial donation from the family of Stacie Belew (Lutheran High School South Class of 1998), who was a member of the swim team during her years at Lutheran South.

Organizers hope to continue the program to the next school years, but whether that happens depends on whether funding will be available.

(Information for this story provided by Lutheran South Communications Coordinator Amanda Schoedel)

(This article is provided by


Quiwonyen Hallowanger, a refugee from Liberia, practices floating with Lutheran South High School student/swim instructor Abigail Hanson. Photo by Ursula Ruhl.