With the founding of Watermen’s Warehouse, a nonprofit brand that raises money for free swimming lessons, the Schieffer family is helping others love the water as much as they do.
Growing up in Southern California, Josh Schieffer didn’t give much thought to the fact that every nearby high school had a pool. It made sense, since being comfortable and capable in and around water was such a huge part of his everyday life on the West Coast. So, when he and his wife, Jayme, moved to the Hampstead area seven years ago, he couldn’t understand how, in a region where knowing how to swim is crucial, none of the local public schools had their own pool.
“It was mindboggling to be living at the beach and realizing public schools don’t have pools,” Schieffer says. “I have a background in manufacturing health and safety, including water safety, and I just couldn’t believe there were no public pool programs anywhere near Topsail.”
Concerned that such an essential service was missing in his otherwise perfect coastal community, Schieffer saw an opportunity to make a change when his two teenage sons approached him in 2020 with the idea of starting their own business. Wanting to create a surf-inspired clothing company, 19-year-old Blake and 15-year-old Jacob’s initial goal was to make a profit, but Schieffer challenged the boys to think bigger.
“I told them to find a purpose greater than financial gain, something that motivated them and pulled them out of bed,” Schieffer says. “They wanted it to be surf and water-related, so I asked what some purposes were that they could rally behind in this area, and as a family we started thinking about the lack of public pools.”
Schieffer and his sons researched drowning statistics and found that, according to the American Red Cross, nearly 50% of Americans don’t know how to swim. 79% of children from low-income households have few-to-no swimming skills, and African-American children ages 5 to 19 drown at a rate more than five times higher than Caucasian children of the same age. They also found that the average income levels of Pender, New Hanover and Onslow counties seemed to hover around the low-income level.
The mission of the family’s new venture became clear — make swim lessons accessible to everyone and therefore help prevent drowning deaths.
Schieffer told his sons he would help start the nonprofit as long as all profits went to charity while they learned how to run it. Once the boys understood the business and were ready to go out on their own, Schieffer would step back and let them take the reins.
“That’s basically how Waterman’s Warehouse got started,” Schieffer says. “We put together a five-year business plan and decided to crowdfund our first shirt design with a local artist, and it immediately took off.”
Their crowdfunding efforts enabled the Schieffers to start selling shirts on their website and through a big push on social media and at the same time form a partnership with the local Hampstead gym Coastal Fitness Center, home to the only indoor pool in the area.
Through an application process, Waterman’s Warehouse would cover the cost for any low-income families needing swim lessons and help offset the cost of lessons for middle- and higher-income families.
“We bought a bunch of yard signs and put them all over Pender County advertising free swim lessons in a heated indoor pool, which helped get the word out,” Schieffer says. “The boys were able to network with a few surf shops, who started selling our shirts as well, and it just snowballed from there.”
By providing financial assistance to help families afford the cost of swim lessons with certified instructors, Waterman’s Warehouse put more than 100 kids in the water in 2021, with their current total standing at 286.
In addition to Coastal Fitness, the organization offers lessons through partnerships with Courts Plus Fitness Center in Jacksonville and the YMCA in New Hanover County. With the help of a dedicated team of volunteers and board members, the organization is committed to helping anyone who wants to learn how to swim or become more comfortable in the water.
“We cater to anybody from babies to adults,” Schieffer says. “We recently had a student in her 60s who had moved to the area and didn’t know how to swim but really wanted to go in the ocean.”
The name Waterman’s Warehouse reflects both the organization’s mission as well as part of its strategic five-year plan. Schieffer says the term “waterman” is all-inclusive, describing someone who fishes, boats, dives or surfs.
“This area is known for commercial fishing and oyster farming, and we want to continue to develop that,” Schieffer says. “If 80% of these kids don’t know how to swim, how will they sustain those careers?”
The “warehouse” part came about as Schieffer and his sons looked to the potential future of their endeavor. If the nonprofit became successful, the family thought maybe another goal down the road might be to build a pool somewhere the high school could easily access.
“We thought we could take an existing building or warehouse that’s no longer in use and put a pool in the middle of it,” Schieffer says. “We started with the end goal in mind, because if this is successful, at least we have a name we can grow into.”
One distinct aspect of the organization’s marketing campaign is the fact that everything is in black and white.
From the company’s current line of t-shirts, hoodies and flannels to the splashy images of surfers and waves spread across their social media channels, the lack of color throughout is intentional.
“If your parents don’t know how to swim, there’s a significant likelihood they won’t sign you up for swim lessons, because they have a natural fear of the water,” Schieffer says. “That means there are generations after generations of families who’ve never gone into the water, so we decided to focus on diversity and make sure that our student base is reflective of our community. We use black and white imagery strategically on our website and through our clothes and marketing to represent that inclusivity.”
Schieffer believes the education his sons are receiving from running Waterman’s Warehouse is one of the best things to come out of starting the nonprofit with his kids. After Blake completes his current service in the Navy and heads to college and Jacob graduates high school, the two brothers intend to continue dedicating as much time as possible to Waterman’s Warehouse while being full-time students. It’s a big stretch, but neither one of them can image stepping back from something they’re so passionate about.
“Blake just applied for his first grant and got it,” Schieffer says. “There’s no college course that can teach my kids what they’re learning from running Waterman’s.”
Schieffer also values the bond he and his sons have formed through the experience. He says he recently told Jayme, whom he credits as being the glue that holds the rest of the family together, how Waterman’s will always be a significant chapter in their life.
“The other day I stopped by the pool and saw all these Waterman’s families, and it just brought me to tears,” Schieffer says. “Nothing else in my 25-year career has made me sob like that, just knowing that we all did this together.”
In addition to bonding with his sons and having the ability to teach them solid business principles, Schieffer values the opportunity he’s been given to make the Topsail community a better place to live.
“Moving to this area, I didn’t want to be that guy who just showed up in the water to surf someone’s waves who’d grown up here,” Schieffer says. “If I’m going to come to this community, to this beach break, I’m going to give back. I believe that as a family we need to give back, so this experience really serves a great purpose for all of us.”