BETSY LOPEZ FRITSCHER
Wednesday, February 15, 2006 | As a teenager, working as the only Spanish-speaking lifeguard in her neighborhood pool in El Paso, Texas, Belinda Bencomo had a vision of the swimming pools of the future.
She imagined pools staffed with minorities working as lifeguards – places where those who looked out for their community were also representative of the predominantly Hispanic population. She imagined a place where local people could become role models to those who swam below.
“I felt like it should be more of a reflection of the community I was serving,” she said.
Years later, after encountering a similar trend at public pools while attending college in San Diego, Bencomo took steps to make her vision come true.
Determined to make a difference, Bencomo sought employment with the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. In 1990, she was promoted to recreation specialist, a position that allowed her to push her dream forward into the zone of reality.
Immediately, Bencomo began detailing a program aimed at increasing the number of minorities the city would hire. She found that by providing lifeguard training and certification opportunities at a fraction of the regular cost, individuals from low-income and minority backgrounds could have the skills to qualify as entry-level lifeguards.
A key aspect she incorporated into the aquatics program was to make it available to anyone older than 15. To provide an intimacy to learning, and weed out anyone who might not be dedicated, Bencomo decided to limit class size to 30 participants selected each season in tryouts.
After nearly a year of planning and implementing a strong emphasis on recruiting in urban areas, the Winter Aquatic Vocational Education program (W.A.V.E) launched, followed a few years later by the Spring Aquatic Vocational Education program (S.A.V.E), which hit the minority scene as well.
Bencomo said the two programs are aimed at everybody, not just natural swimmers or the swim club members.
“We are looking for the kid who is not necessarily a competitive swimmer. They have to have minimal skill level, but we will work with them so they get to the point where they can refine their stroke,” Bencomo said.
W.A.V.E and S.A.V.E each began with plenty of momentum. Bencomo incorporated useful components that were tailored to help participants succeed, while forging a partnership with the American Red Cross, which helped with instruction fees, books and materials.
“We teach them how to be prepared for interviews, build resumes and require them to do volunteer work,” Bencomo said. “After they complete 30 hours at city pools and five hours with the Red Cross, we know they have the confidence to succeed.”
W.A.V.E and S.A.V.E necessitate a commitment to service, and a need for participants to embrace their responsibilities and stay on time. The courses not only cover lifeguard training, but also teach the skills of CPR and first aid, to show students young and old that lifeguards come from all races, backgrounds and socio-economic scales.
Entering into its 16th year, the five-week aquatic programs have consistently been offered for $50 per participant, giving minorities an affordable chance to learn new skills and save lives.
Although the price may seem reasonable, not everyone has the means to pay.
In 1994, then-15-year-old Manuel Gonzalez tried out for the W.A.V.E program. He met the requirements of swimming 500 continuous yards. He completed the short written exam. However, Gonzalez said his family was dealing with a terrible financial situation, and spending $50 would have put a strain on them.
But Gonzalez was determined. His mother begged Bencomo to give him a scholarship, but, to the family’s dismay, all available scholarships had already been handed out. Nevertheless, Bencomo saw the commitment and hope in the Gonzalez family, so she agreed to allow them to pay $5 a week, until they reached the $50 the program cost.
“I wanted to offer the opportunity to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity, to create a positive role model for kids,” Bencomo said.
That year, Gonzalez turned out to be one of three W.A.V.E graduates to be hired by the city – proving that anything is possible if you keep your eye on the target.
By being a lifeguard, Gonzalez was able to pay a portion of his college fees at the prestigious Princeton University in New Jersey. While he was away attending school, he continued to lifeguard, work as a pool instructor and, later, a supervisor for the city of San Diego during his school breaks.
Eleven years later, Gonzalez is still working with the city – proving that the programs that Bencomo’s started give back to the San Diego community. Gonzalez said the programs taught him some valuable lessons.
“I felt like I needed to give back to aquatics and encourage inner-city youth to start young, so by the time they’re teenagers they can be potential candidates for lifeguards,” Gonzalez said.
The city’s programs have a way of opening doors, creating opportunities and forming great careers for aquatic lovers. And the best part is, they’re open to all.
“You don’t have to be low-income to qualify,” Bencomo said. “We have had kids from higher incomes participate.”
Bencomo said that participants have come from North County areas including Scripps Ranch and Carmel Valley, while others attend from Barrio Logan and San Ysidro. In the end, Bencomo said, all the students form close friendships while learning about each others’ lives and cultures.
Gonzalez too remembers a time when hardly any lifeguards were minorities, but gladly accepts the positive advances in city pool staff. He finds that now when kids go to their local pools, they can find common ground with the lifeguards and say, “I can be a lifeguard too.”
“W.A.V.E and S.A.V.E played a role in changing that demographic by increasing the Hispanics and African-Americans working at pools,” Gonzalez explained.
Her dream fulfilled, Bencomo can now rest assured knowing that she has contributed to altering lives and transforming stances. Income and race aside, her mentality for progress says it all.
“This is for that kid who hasn’t had that perfect opportunity.”
Roughly 350 people have gone through both programs in the past 16 years; tryouts for the S.A.V.E. program will be held on Feb. 25 at 9 a.m. Contact Belinda Bencomo for additional details at
Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice‘s editorial assistant. Please contact her with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips at