Faith Bradley, 15, about to complete her lifeguard training at Samuel Recreation Center in Port Richmond

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Faith Bradley is nervous but excited to be a lifeguard for the first time. The 15-year-old is one of the people who’ll be hired to watch over Philadelphia’s public pools this summer — a roster city officials are still scrambling to fill.

Bradley barely had any swimming experience before she applied. Growing up, she didn’t swim much at all. A native of Northeast Philly, she lived just blocks from a rec center, but never took lessons.

“At first, I wasn’t too sure about it. I was pretty nervous. But as I continue to come back, learning new skills, I keep getting better,” Bradley said, as she stood in the blazing sun last week outside the training facility at Samuel Recreation Center in Port Richmond. She called the opportunity to become a lifeguard “a huge responsibility.”

Under the tutelage of Philadelphia’s water safety instructors, she’s gone from an “OK swimmer,” as her mom described it, to one procedural email away from being a Red Cross certified lifeguard. In all, the whole process took about a month.

To pass, Bradley was required to swim 300 yards nonstop, backstroke the width of the pool holding a 10 lb weight, and tread water for two minutes using only her legs. She also had to get certified in CPR.

“Seeing her go through this process during after-school hours and on weekends has just been amazing,” said Faith’s mom, Aliya Catanch-Bradley, a principal at North Philadelphia’s Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School.

Faith joined the program after the family heard on the news that the city was facing a shortage due to the pandemic.

Since the Department of Parks and Recreation reopened their training pool at Samuel training pool on March 22, over 200 applicants have passed the lifeguard screening test and are in the process of getting certified and hired.

That’s not enough. With pool season just weeks away, and despite extensive advertising campaigns by the city and a boost in starting pay to $15.25 an hour, Philadelphia is still massively lacking certified lifeguards to deploy.

The program needs 350 to 400 lifeguards to fully staff the city’s public pools this summer. Without them, the swim spots won’t open.

Breana Cooper, 25, has been a lifeguard for 7 years and was just recertified at Samuel Rec Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell still isn’t certain what will happen.

“Pool season opens when we have enough guards,” she said. “There’s not much time left. It takes weeks to get a person processed and brought onto the city’s payroll; it takes time to train and certify each guard.”

It would be a major bummer to city residents, who went without public pools in 2020 when the pandemic kept them shut. That year off is part of the problem.

Many of the regular lifeguards sought employment elsewhere; others need to be recertified, as Red Cross certifications expire every two years. Plus, in a typical year, there would have been a reliable pipeline of high school swim teams from which to recruit.

“We typically go into schools and work with the school district very closely and talk to kids about their summer job plans. We weren’t able to run our Swim for Life camp last year, which we use to train lifeguards,” Ott Lovell said. The recruiting process has “always been difficult, but it’s never been this difficult.”

She said the next two weeks will be “a nailbiter” for the department. Her office has done online job fairs, increased the starting pay, and launched a multiplatform ad campaign.

One of those ads found Ahlayjah Parker, an 18-year-old from Southwest Philly who hasn’t regularly swum since she was a kid. She found an ad on Philadelphia’s city website while looking for a new job after becoming “fed up” working at a pharmacy.

“It’s time for something new,” Parker remembered saying to herself.

Ahlayjah Parker, who’s relearning how to swim in order to become a lifeguard Credit: Robby Brod / WHYY

During her first day training at Samuel, Parker struggled to swim the 12 lengths of the pool required to pass the screener. After a lap and a half, water safety instructor Thelma Nesbitt stepped in with some coaching advice.

“Glide, kick — when you feel yourself slowing down, you kick. Two things are moving: your head and your arms. Pull back nice and easy, slow strokes,” Nesbitt instructed. “Ready?”

For about 30 minutes, Nesbitt coached every bit of Parker’s form with patience and without judgment, allowing Parker ample time to catch her breath and the chance to use her inhaler if she needed to. Nesbitt has been with the department for almost 30 years, and knows the city needs all the recruits it can get.

By the end, with her newly-coached form, Parker was swimming the width of the pool in two full breaths without stopping.

“Good, you made it across! You didn’t do any work! You all right?” Nesbitt asked, as Parker nodded her head and laughed to herself, surprised by her own progress.

“Let’s do it again, whenever you’re ready. Get up against that wall,” Nesbitt said. “Ready, go!”

Ott Lovell said the lifeguard screenings are “a comprehensive process” to make sure someone is qualified. “We make sure we work with them until they can pass certification,” she said. “If they pass the screening and the certification, it’s full-steam ahead.”

Northeast Philly’s Faith Bradley is raring to go. Standing at Samuel’s pool last week, she received the news from the Red Cross she’s been waiting for. She officially passed the written test. Once she turns 16 in a few weeks, she’ll officially become certified as a lifeguard.

“I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed as she jumped into her mom’s arms and gave a huge hug. “I’m just so happy. I can’t wait to get started!”