Women participate in a recent In Her Presence swimming class at the Westbrook Community Center. Contributed / In Her Presence

In an effort to combat the social isolation felt by many senior immigrant women in the area, a nonprofit is getting them out of the house and into the water.

In Her Presence offers swim classes for the women, many of whom have never before had the chance to learn. And the women are loving it, the organization says.

The classes are a way “to get them out of the house, being healthy, taking care of themselves and getting exercise,” said Claudette Ndayininahaze, executive director of In Her Presence, a Westbrook-based nonprofit that offers educational programs to immigrant women living in Maine to help them overcome language and cultural barriers.

“Being alone is forcing them to disconnect, adding anxiety, trauma and stress,” she said, complicating their transition to life here. 

Claudine Kandja, who helped organize the swim lessons, said most of the women In Her Presence works with come from African countries.

“In Africa, we live in community, and when we are here, we miss people and connection,” she said. That cultural shift is jarring, especially for seniors who have been separated from family members who otherwise would have supported them, she said.


Members of a recent swimming class first met through an English class offered by In Her Presence.

“I saw that after class they were socializing and enjoying each other,” Ndayininahaze said, and she wanted to provide them more opportunities to connect with one another and learn new skills.

In Her Presence, which picks the women up at their homes and drops them off at the Westbrook Community Center pool for the lessons, worked to put the women at ease about venturing into the water, including being comfortable with their swimming attire.

“African women don’t like to expose their body, and they asked if they could get legging skirts, long shirts and swim shorts,” Kandja  said.

After putting together a wish list of swimming attire and with the help of In Her Presence funds and Maine Needs donors, they were able to provide 16 seniors with culturally appropriate swimwear.

In Her Presence also was able to close off the pool and changing rooms for privacy during lessons, as the women were not comfortable with men being present.


The class required two female lifeguards, a French and Lingala interpreter and volunteer swim chaperones.

From the first lesson, the women were overjoyed, Kandja said, laughing and splashing happily in the pool.

“After the first lesson they reported feeling better already – aches and pains improved,” she said.

Lessons began last fall and, due to popular request from the women involved, were extended through December.

Kandja said the goal is to resume the swimming lessons this summer. In Her Presence is also hoping to provide senior swimming lessons for men, as well as more programming geared towards men in general.

Older men in the immigrant community face their own challenges, especially those now caring for themselves for the first time, many not used to cooking their own meals, Ndayininahaze said.

More than 1,600 people arrived to Portland seeking asylum last year, according to the city.

More information on the nonprofit can be found at inherpresence.org.

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