NDSU grad brings swimming lessons to 2,000 Nepali children
FARGO - Since the age of 7, Jonathon McCarthy has been a swimmer. At the age of 15, he opened a private swim school. Now, at 22, he has founded a program that recently provided drowning-prevention lessons to 2,000 Nepali children – and he doesn’t plan to stop there.
McCarthy seems like the sort of person who would start a nonprofit in his early 20s. He’s 6 feet, 4 inches tall, sports the toned build of a former high school swim team captain and speaks with an eloquent charisma.
But as a business management major at North Dakota State University, his initial plan was slightly less noble.
“Originally, I was very for-profit focused,” said McCarthy, who is from Coon Rapids, Minn. “I wanted to start a huge swim school, make a lot of money.”
When he discovered social entrepreneurship, though, he was struck by the concept of service being the focus rather than money. He wanted to integrate this with his love of swimming, so he began to research drowning the summer before his senior year at NDSU.
Drowning is the third-leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in the world, according to the World Health Organization, “and in some countries, it’s the first,” McCarthy said. An estimated 359,000 people died from drowning in 2011.
McCarthy came up with the idea of teaching swim lessons in countries with high rates of drowning and started raising money on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo in the hopes of making Aqua Motion International a reality.
He pitched the idea to NDSU’s entrepreneurship club, and its most active member, junior Andrew Moe, soon got involved.
Moe, a 20-year-old accounting major, shares McCarthy’s aptitude for leadership, as well as his tendencies. Both have a penchant for talking with their hands, and they hold eye contact with ease.
McCarthy was president of the entrepreneurship club his junior and senior years, and Moe joined him as co-president the final spring semester. Moe will take over the role of president this fall.
Two thousand dollars into Aqua Motion’s Indiegogo fundraiser, the idea won the top prize in service at NDSU’s Innovation Challenge 2014, an award that came with $5,000.
At that point, McCarthy knew the project was going to happen. Any additional fundraising would just increase its scope, he said. They finished the Indiegogo fundraiser with $5,000, for a total of $10,000.
Nepal first destination
Nepal was chosen as the program’s first destination for its high drowning rate due to monsoons. The rains trigger flash floods and also leave behind deep puddles where children can drown, McCarthy said. Many people grow up so scared of the water that they never learn how to swim.
So McCarthy arranged to travel to Kathmandu Valley, home of Nepal’s capital and two other cities. He needed someone to document the process, and Moe was the obvious choice.
In addition to buying their tickets, the $10,000 went toward chlorine for pool water that was nearly black when the students arrived and salaries for the program’s 36 Nepali instructors, six for each of six pools in the area.
Children came to the various pools each day to learn McCarthy’s four steps: holding your breath, doing a back float, treading water and swimming a safety stroke. McCarthy and the Nepali instructors taught 2,000 kids between May 19 and June 6.
“It blew my mind how successful it was,” McCarthy said.
The experience brought McCarthy to tears several times – hence the reason Moe describes McCarthy as not only “passionate” and “determined” but also as “sentimental.”
One day, McCarthy noticed six kids standing on the other side of one pool’s fence. They lived in a crumbling house across the street and were looking on, enviously, as others took swim lessons inside.
“And I realized that these children had been living next to this pool, on the other side of a fence, for their entire lives and never once had gone inside and swam,” he said. “They just watched people that had money, and had food, all day swimming.”
So McCarthy walked over and invited the kids to join; when they had nothing to wear, Moe bought them swimsuits.
“It was the least I could do,” Moe said.
‘I want it to continue’
Moe has his own business plans for the future and anticipates being less involved with the project.
McCarthy graduated from NDSU in May and is working as the community director for the local March of Dimes group.
For now, Aqua Motion International is on hold.
But in the fall, McCarthy plans to have Moe’s footage turned into a professional video. He’s also planning to apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which would make it easier to garner large donations.
“We have the foundation, we have the structure for it, and we have the people willing to do it,” he said. “Everything’s there, just not the money.”
Money would allow him to complete a similar project in Bangladesh, where the drowning rate is the highest in the world, and also further the work in Nepal.
“Nepal was our first project, but I want it to continue there,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a one-and-done.”