MERCED — Dozens of children Thursday stood eagerly with their hands squeezing the bars and faces pressed into the openings of the fence surrounding the pool at McNamara Park, waiting for the signal to swim.
That was just one of the sights as Merced and Central Valley Red Cross officials opened the swimming season Thursday with a pool party.
The occasion was important to local residents because of the pool's recent past. After being closed the in 2011, McNamara pool was reopened last year when south Merced residents pushed city officials to find the $70,000 in city money and private donations to renovate the pool.
Leslie Montano of Merced stood at the edge of the pool trying to coax her 5-year-old son, Carmelo Graves, to swim.
"In the summer it's a big deal, especially for people who can't get away," the 39-year-old said about the pool. "It's just nice to have in the neighborhood something positive for a change."
Tamara Cobb, a community activist and organizer, said the park and pool are an important part of the neighborhood. It's a place where children can be supervised, steered into other youth programs and be safe from gang activity, she said.
"There are barbecues, birthdays, celebrations, Cinco de Mayo this is the park where that occurs because it is the focal point," Cobb said.
More nonprofits expected
Community leaders and park staff can meet children and parents in the park, Cobb said, leading to a sense of community. Cobb said she'd like to see the city put more money into youth services.
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said he expects more nonprofits will get involved in programs offered to young people.
"This is really the impetus for that to get started," he said, adding that a group has approached him about possibly adding solar power to the pool's filtration system. "There will now, somehow, always be sufficient money in the budget to keep this pool open," he said.
Later this year, McNamara Park will see renovations made possible by a $2.6 million state grant.
Plans include converting a softball field into two gated soccer fields with artificial turf, and creating a grass all-purpose field. Upgrades are planned for playground equipment and basketball courts, along with the addition of a covered entertainment pavilion and a fountain for children to play in.
Swimming lessons available
There's good news for children who want to learn to use the pool.
Flip Hassett, the executive director of the United Way Merced County, announced Thursday that swimming lessons for children will be available at $10 per two-week session. Donations from members of the community brought that amount down to less than one-quarter of what it was, he said.
The McNamara pool will be the site of lessons from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., while the pool at Merced High School is open for lessons from 4 to 8 p.m. The first session begins Monday.
For more on the lessons, contact Recreation Supervisor Joey Chavez at (209) 385-6978 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Los Banos Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or email@example.com.