Flanked by children as he walks the perimeter of the Ammons Community Recreation Center in the Hill District, Charles Bonner makes his way to the Olympic-size swimming pool. He unlocks security gates, checks chlorine levels and proceeds to greet enthusiastic attendees of his summer swimming program.
The 28-year-old Bonner serves as head lifeguard at Ammons, a job he said he’s been preparing for since he was a teenager.
“Starting back in 2005, I was a program counselor,” Bonner said. “One of the positions I had to have was lifeguarding. It was actually my first job."
According to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of African Americans are unable to swim, a statistic that highlights a cultural divide between those who have the skills to stay afloat. Bonner found that statistic staggering.
“When I first heard that, I knew this was a position that I should stick with,” Bonner said. “And it's starting to pay off. This is the only pool I could work. I could work anywhere, but if I were to choose, I would definitely choose Ammons 10 times out of 10."
Nicknamed "Uncle Charlie," Bonner has become a staple of the area and is respected by residents of all generations. His passion stems from growing up in a predominantly black community and said part of his duty is to make sure the youth have a home base to learn life lessons, as well.
“I don't look at this job as a money job, I look at this job as a life changing job. That's something that benefits years down the road,” Bonner said. “Teaching a kid to go left rather than going right or teaching a kid right from wrong."
Darrelle Porter, mentor and friend, has watched Bonner grow from a youth to a leader in his Hill District community.
"He's an educator,” Porter said. “So he educates them on the percentages of African Americans drowning and not being able to swim. He wants to change that and he tells them why. And then he shows them. He will get in the pool with them, he'll do workouts. He will lead by example instead of just telling you what to do. That's important for our youth. His energy level and effort is second to none.”
One thing Bonner said he’s learned since he started overseeing the pool at Ammons and its staff of lifeguards and employees is that to be a good leader, you have to lead by example.
“And you have to show them rather than always talking about it,” Bonner said. “I'm not one that just writes stuff up and writes stuff down and have you do it. I'm one that leads by example. I do everything I have my lifeguards do. I don't consider myself a boss."
Tanika Harris is a Hill District resident who has seen "Uncle Charlie" in action, giving guidance to young people through her son's experience at the pool.
"I'm a parent of a child that has a special need,” Harris said. “My son is legally blind and Charles has taught my son how to swim and has given him confidence that he has never had before. So as a parent, I appreciate that."
More than 9,000 children have come through Bonner's summer programs and he says the amount of dedication put towards his duty to be a positive influence for others is gratifying.
“I’ve been put in this position for a reason and I'll continue this position until this position changes my life,” Bonner said. “That's my motivation behind it. I’m giving these kids everything that I got.”