Feature Article - January 2008
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Aquatic Programming Gets Back to Basics

By Emily Tipping

Safety First

To combat the midday doldrums, when many pools and other recreational facilities sit empty, Feris introduced a water safety program targeted at area schoolchildren. Called Waterproof Kids, the program initially brought in third-graders from the school district for a one-day field trip to learn about water safety. Four or five college students help run the program, acting as instructors, and Feris credits the heightened excitement and energy level during the lessons to their closer age proximity to the school kids.

"Since its inception, we've had over 14,000 children come and participate in the one-day field trips," Feris explained. "We totally immerse them in water safety education." The program covers the rules, first aid and how to handle an emergency, as well as teaching kids never to swim alone and how to non-invasively help a friend who's in trouble in the water—in a way that doesn't run the risk of having two people drown.

As part of the program, every child also goes through a general skills evaluation, and at the end of the day, they go home with a completion certificate. For kids deemed to be at greater risk, a strong recommendation goes home with them letting the parent know that their child needs some lessons.

While these suggestions are more of a broad recommendation to parents to get their kids into any facility's lessons, Feris said that they do see some of those kids back at the natatorium. "A lot of children we define as at-risk, their parents will contact us and sign their children up for swim lessons."

The program has been successful in getting an entire school district's worth of kids to learn about water safety. While the district does not require its grade schools to take part, it is recommended, and at this point, Feris said, there is 100 percent participation by every school.

At the other end of the safety spectrum, Feris said his facility also trains 200 to 250 lifeguards every year, and this has been another way to partner with other facilities in the community to build revenue.

When he learned that a new Great Wolf Lodge was set to open a hotel and 86,000-square-foot indoor waterpark in December 2007, Feris' first thought was that they'd need to train their lifeguards somewhere.

"I just knew they'd need somewhere to train their staff, and we're just as viable a candidate as anyone around," he said. "So we invited them to dance with us, and eventually they decided to go on a date."

The relationship blossomed further when Great Wolf Lodge contributed $10,000 for the use of the natatorium and became a sponsor of the natatorium's scholarships, which help get even more kids into swim lessons and the water safety program.