Feature Article - January 2019
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On the Front Lines, Making a Difference

Grassroots Efforts & Technology Aim to Prevent Drowning

By Dave Ramont

In the Trenches

One group working in the local trenches is the nonprofit Howard's Hope. The organization was established in 2014 by Steve Reeves and his wife Stacy after they witnessed the near-drowning of their 4-year-old daughter several years earlier. That experience led them to realize just how common juvenile drownings were, and they decided to dedicate themselves to combatting the problem.

Through Howard's Hope, they created the Flying Fish program, which provides economically disadvantaged youth access to organized swim programs, since Reeves realized that certain populations had higher drowning rates. "There are many causes attributed to this, but one of the main ones is the children never had any formal swim lessons and don't know how to swim."

The Flying Fish program partners with aquatics facilities across Tennessee, and is free to children from economically challenged households. To determine eligibility, an application is required, which can be found at the Howard's Hope website. "We currently work with the campus recreation departments at University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State University and University of Alabama in Huntsville," Reeves said. They also partner with city aquatics facilities in other Tennessee regions, including Nashville and Chattanooga, as well as one in Hot Springs, Ark.

Participating facilities market the program to their communities, and Reeves said facility operators have been very supportive, realizing that there's a great need for this type of arrangement. "To them it meets several goals: It gets non-swimming kids into organized swim classes, and it generates revenue for their facility. Remember, Howard's Hope doesn't 'provide' swim lessons, the organization 'funds' swim lessons."

The Flying Fish program does have a few corporate benefactors, including some local United Way agencies, but Reeves said it's still a challenge to operate on a shoestring budget, even though they're an all-volunteer organization. "We had a very successful fundraiser concert in 2016, but have not had one since. However, we do continue to receive support from private citizens from across the country." But the program has proven to be a success, with more than 1,500 children served by the end of 2018. In 2019 they hope to expand into Kentucky and beyond.

Another weapon in the drowning prevention battle is the good old life jacket. More pools are allowing them and even encouraging their use, maintaining their own supply of U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets and requiring non-swimmers to wear them. This helps kids feel more comfortable in the water, and many facilities have reported that once they incorporated a life jacket program, pool rescues decreased and swim lesson enrollment increased.

Cannell feels life jacket use is imperative, especially there in the Fort Worth area where temperatures get high and people flock to open water, since there is a lack of public swimming pools. "We distribute life jackets at the end of each of our programs. The Fort Worth Fire Department Rescue Dive Team talks to our students about the necessity of wearing life jackets in and on open water prior to properly fitting each student with their individual Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)."

She said that of the 118 drowning deaths in Texas last summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 79 were in lakes. "These folks would not have perished if they were wearing life jackets."

Dessart also feels that there's a critical need for life jacket use, and learning about proper wear and fitting, especially in parts of the country where there's a lot of boating and other lake activities. "So we definitely see our swim lesson providers providing that education both to the children and their parents."

In addition to his duties at NDPA, Katchmarchi is the aquatics director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), where they offer swim instruction as well as lifeguard, lifeguard instructor and water safety instructor courses to students and the community. He points out that there are many passionate professionals working on the front lines of drowning prevention. And he says that while they always encourage facility managers to meet all their applicable standards and regulations surrounding their operations, they also encourage them to look at how they can make a larger impact.

"Don't be afraid to ask yourself how you can make your facility safer for all your guests, clients and staff. Additionally, I encourage aquatic facility managers to get involved with local drowning prevention efforts if they haven't already done so. Drowning doesn't discriminate," Katchmarchi said. "We have so many experts on water safety in this field. Don’t be afraid to go out and share your expertise with your neighbors."