In the Philanthropic Swim

In the Philanthropic Swim

Hills couple invests in Oakland’s needy youth and prods their peers to follow suit.

The Upper Rockridge street where John Bliss and Kim Thompson live is high above the gritty flats of East Oakland, West Oakland, or Fruitvale. And their house—a 4,600-square-foot Tudor-style mansion designed by renowned architect E. Geoffrey Banks and designated as an Oakland historic landmark recently—is far out of the range of Oakland’s low-income residents.

But Bliss, a vice president at SCI Consulting, and Thompson, a partner with Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, don’t see themselves as separate from the citizens of Oakland who are struggling financially. And they’re leading a campaign now to get more Oaklanders who are “financially blessed,” as Bliss says, to feel the same way and begin investing in their own community.

“East Oakland, West Oakland, hills, or flats—it’s all one community to us,” Bliss says. “And we want to help where we can.”

The couple’s involvement in Oakland affairs began when Bliss was appointed to the board of Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and improving Oakland’s parks. “After about a decade of that, I decided I wanted to up the game,” Bliss says. “So I asked the Oakland Park and Recreation Department what we could do to help out more. And they suggested that we help the swimming program.”

Many in Oakland don’t know that Oakland has long had an excellent aquatics program. And they also don’t know that minority children are often unlikely to learn to swim. According to USA Swimming, the governing body of U.S. competitive swimming, taking swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent in children. Yet 77 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children can’t swim. Moreover, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that African-American children ages 5 to 14 are three times more likely to drown in pools than white and Hispanic children.

“Many children just don’t have the opportunity,” Thompson explains. “At my son’s high school, all the students have to take swimming in PE. But some students just don’t go in the water, because they don’t know how to swim. That isn’t good. Knowing how to swim is a safety issue and a self-confidence issue. It’s so important that children learn.”

To help solve the problem, Bliss and Thompson created the Thompson-Bliss Family Gift, through which they are donating $100,000 to the parks department over five years to fully fund swim lesson scholarships for Oakland youth up to 18 years old. That money will provide eight 45-minute lessons to children whose families can’t afford swim lessons, enough for the child to develop “basic competence” in the water, Bliss says. “A parent can go into any of the five swim centers in Oakland and ask for financial assistance. That application can be approved on the spot, and the child can start taking lessons within a few days.”

The couple is especially keen to get swimming lessons to children who live near two Oakland swim centers: The East Oakland Sport Center in Brookdale, and deFremery Pool in West Oakland. The former, which was recently renovated, now boasts a long, shallow pool, in which a parent who can’t swim can stand while helping a child who is learning. (“This is a not-well-known treasure in Oakland,” Bliss says.) The latter is one of the oldest pools in the city.

“In our first year, 2013, 62 children learned to swim who otherwise wouldn’t have,” Bliss says. “But we’re not satisfied with that. Our goal is to give every child in Oakland a chance to learn.”

Ken Lupoff, executive director of FOP, says that Thompson and Bliss have been “fantastic” to work with. “They are completely dedicated to all of Oakland. They don’t see chopped up neighborhoods. They see one community. That’s very unusual in this city.” The goal this year, he notes, is to double the number of children receiving scholarships.

The couple has also started a competitive grants program, through which recreation centers (many of which are located next to elementary schools), can apply for grants of up to $2,500 to fund special programs, such as summer camps, field trips, planting a garden, or buying defibrillators.

Last fall, one of the grantees was deFremery Park. Thompson and Bliss, along with the Golden State Warriors and the Good Tidings Foundation (a nonprofit that works to provide arts, education, and athletics to Bay Area children in need) helped to renovate the basketball courts there. “Just seeing the look on the faces of those kids when they saw the beautiful courts and the Warriors players at the grand opening made us know that was money well invested,” Thompson says. Adds Bliss, “If other people could see that, I think they’d realize it’s more satisfying to invest in the local community than it is to invest in Google stock. The joy of seeing the looks on those young boys’ and girls’ faces—when they saw the courts and the Warriors is something we will never forget.”

But Bliss and Thompson’s vision is far bigger than providing swim lessons and field trips to inner-city youth—or even helping them to stay engaged, productive, and off the streets. Instead, the couple—also large contributors to Boys & Girls Club of Oakland, the Engineering Academy at Oakland Technical High School, and Legal Services for Children, a San Francisco based nonprofit organization that provides legal and social services to youth in need—see their recent donations as a template of how wealthy Oaklanders can be nudged into contributing more to their local community. “There is such a great need here,” Thompson says. “This investment is money well spent.”

The couple knows that people in the hills may not be naturally inclined to invest in low-income areas. But they still think it’s time for the community to build an “army of mini-philanthropists. In the Oakland hills, a lot of people invest in cars, houses, stocks, and companies. I just want to see people invest in their community,” Thompson says. “They’re often so worried about crimes and criminals ‘down there’ coming ‘up here.’ But if we all invest in all of Oakland, we can help improve the overall quality of life and reduce the amount of crime. This helps people. It is productive. It makes it more likely that youth will give back. You can do this—or you can build higher walls and alarms and window covers. But which investment works best in the long run?”

Adds Bliss, “We are not unique. There are a lot of people in the Oakland hills who are financially blessed and good people. Their hearts are in the right place. We’re just nudging them, prodding them, to share their wealth with others. I know some give $50, but they could give thousands, and it won’t hurt their financial situation. If they saw the looks on kids’ faces, they would realize they get more satisfaction from that than from investing in Google stock.”

Bliss’s own family (he grew up in Los Altos) talked a lot about the importance of community service. “Being involved was a part of our family and tradition and life,” he says. Thompson’s family (she grew up in Toronto), also was involved in charitable organizations. Now the couple brings their two teen-aged children to events, “just so they can see what we’re trying to accomplish,” Bliss says. “There’s no point in living in Oakland if we don’t think about the broader community, the cultural diversity, and the variety of socio-economic circumstances here.”

Susan E. Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Alameda and has written often for The Monthly.

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