It’s a blazing hot Thursday morning at Wong Chuk Hang's outdoor public pool on Hong Kong Island’s Southside, and the latest cohort of domestic workers is being assessed in the twelfth and final session of their beginner learn-to-swim programme. A nervous excitement is palpable, as is the supportive environment that the women have created, cheering on their fellow students as they each demonstrate their command of a range of water-based skills.
But the Splash Foundation’s free courses don’t simply teach these women, the majority of whom are Filipino, how to swim. They are also a place to build community.
“I don’t think I appreciated how few opportunities [domestic workers] have to meet and make close friends and have strong bonds,” says Splash co-founder and CEO Libby Alexander. “So, once they start, they don’t want to stop. And, honestly, it’s not necessarily about the swimming; it’s about having that friendship group. You go through this experience together—they come in so fearful, and that makes the bonds with each other tighter.”
Testing the water
Alexander co-founded Splash in 2015 with marathon swimmer Simon Holliday—Holliday’s accomplishments include swimming from Hong Kong to Macau in 2014, the second individual to do so, and being the first man to swim around Hong Kong Island in 2017.
On moving to Hong Kong, Holliday had witnessed the gatherings of domestic workers on Sundays in the city’s streets and wondered whether they might be in search of something else to do. He had also noticed that even when he saw domestic workers at the beaches on their one day off, few would actually go in the water. He spoke to some and realised that many didn’t know how to swim, so he proposed an idea to some fellow swimmers, Alexander included, and she bit. Splash’s first learn-to-swim programme was born and proved to be just the beginning.
“We saw the swim skill results and we realised that teaching someone the basics of swimming is not that hard. But then it was the empowerment and watching the women change within that 12-week period,” says Alexander, who saw the attitude, mindset and what these helpers believed was possible transform during the course of the programme. And there was the social connection, too. For both sides—teacher and student—once they started neither wanted to stop. At the end of that first programme, 28 of the 30 women enrolled in the course asked, “Where can we sign up again?”
And so, one course became two and then four, and Alexander and Holliday realised they had stumbled on something with huge potential.