For most, the water is a summertime rite –– a chance to celebrate vacation and the warmer temperature.
However, when it comes to Florida, there’s a grim statistic that looms over the state: it leads the nation in child deaths due to unintentional drowning, specifically kids ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some 30 to 40 children will drown in Florida each year, and according to Edith Torres, Miami-Dade County’s park spokeswoman, it’s entirely preventable.
“It’s so easy to learn how to swim,” Torres said. “Within a few days, you can grasp the basics.”
Torres works through the county with Swim for Jenny, a memorial fund and advocacy group established to honor Jenny Nguyen, a 12-year-old Homestead child who drowned in 2011. Her message: Learning to swim is an essential skill.
Numerous municipal pools, swimming clubs and learn-to-swim private programs abound throughout the county, with many starting programs over the next few weeks. Here is a look at some of them:
VENETIAN AQUATIC CLUB
The Venetian Aquatic Club, based at Coral Gables’ historic Venetian Pool, is a volunteer-led group of about 125 members dedicated to teaching children and adults how to swim since 1959.
The VAC offers Red Cross-certified swimming and water safety lessons throughout the summer, with five different, two-week sessions from June 9 through Aug. 4. Children must be at least 5 years old and show a birth certificate at registration. The program teaches adults as well.
“I like teaching kids how to swim,” said Sonia Dallas, the VAC’s water safety chairwoman who has volunteered for more than 20 years and continues to teach kids every summer.
Dallas, a native Australian in her 80s, learned to swim in school in Australia and doesn’t understand why Miami schools don’t teach kids how to swim.
“In Australia it’s easy because they teach it in the schools, it’s a regular program,” she said. “I think it is very important in Florida because we are surrounded by water.”
The two-week swimming sessions of 10 lessons for children ages 5-17 cost $50 for Coral Gables residents and $55 for others. The volunteers charge no fees for instruction; the fee covers pool admission.
“Kids learn without fear, they’re happy in the water and the parents are happy with the program because it’s cheap,” said Dallas, who can be seen swimming at the pool every morning.
Parents wait for their children outside the pool during the 40-minute lessons and are invited to learn how to swim or improve their skills with the club’s three-week adult swimming lessons, offered in three sessions, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., this summer: June 10-26, July 1-17 and July 22-Aug. 7.
Many children who learn to swim with the VAC eventually become water-safety aides when they turn 15 and some even become lifeguards.
“We breed our own instructors,” said Keile Allen, the VAC’s president and longtime volunteer. “They grow up in our programs, we train them and almost all of them become lifeguards or volunteers, they bring their spouses and children, and it becomes a family affair.”
UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
The University of Miami’s Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center opens its double-Olympic size pool to the community for lessons during the summer and throughout the year.
Nikki Reifschneider, the assistant director for group exercise and community classes, said that in her time with the university, the overall goal is to “have our children prepared,” should they find themselves in a water crisis.
Parents with children as young as 3 can register their kids for learn-to-swim sessions. The Youth Aquatic classes, starting July 15, break up the swimmers by age and swimming experience.
The levels are: Guppies for beginning swimmers ages 3-6; Minnows for 3- to 6-year-olds with some experience; Trouts for 5- to 8-year-olds who can swim at least one length of the pool; Marlins for 6- to 10-year-olds who can swim at least two lengths of the pool; Dolphins for children ages 6-10 who can swim well on their own; and Sharks for advanced swimmers, ages 11-14.
The Herbert Wellness Center also offers lessons for adults.
“Surprisingly, these are the classes that get immediately filled up,” Reifschneider said.
Classes for adults range from basic swimming instructions to classes for the advance swimmer looking to improve technique and endurance. Registration for Youth Aquatic classes will reopen from July 7-14, and for Adult Aquatic classes, registration will open until July 3.
At Gibson Park, Overtown’s new community park and pool, pool manager Jackson Calis opened the doors to Will Reich, president of the Biscayne Bay Kiwanis Club, and the two are working together to provide affordable swimming lessons to children.
Calis, who has earned the nickname “Pool Guy,” says he’s grateful for the scholarships the Kiwanis Club is providing to the children of Overtown. From June to August, the Kiwanis Club is paying $25 of the city’s $45 fee for 50 kids each month.
“It’s a low-income area, so for parents to come up with $45 per child, sometimes it can be hard for them,” Calis said.
Lessons will be held Monday-Thursday the first two weeks in June. Classes for 3- to 5-year-olds will be taught from 4-5 p.m.; 11 and older, 5-6 p.m.; and 6- to 10-year-olds, 6-7 p.m. Schedules will change in July and August.
The $10.9 million park, 401 NW 12th St., opened in August 2012 and began offering swimming lessons last year.
METRO AQUATIC CLUB
The Metro Aquatic Club, a competitive swim club, offers its Learn to Swim program at the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School swimming pool year round with a short break during the winter. Belen is located at 500 SW 127th Ave.
The club encourages children who complete the Learn to Swim program to join the swim team to perfect their abilities and become involved in the sport. The club teaches students as young as 20 months and up through the time the student has mastered the four different swimming strokes, usually about 7 to 8 years old: back, breast, butterfly and freestyle. After that, students are encouraged to transfer to the larger Tamiami Pool.
Danielle Gullage, 50, is a seasoned competitive swimmer, and has been teaching kids to swim since she was 16. She started the Learn to Swim program about four years ago.
“I’ve always done it,” she said. “When I was a swimmer, my summer job was teaching kids how to swim, and there’s the need for it, too.”
Gullage also taught her two girls, Jordan, 17, and Morgan, 20, how to swim. The two girls are the Learn to Swim program’s main instructors.
The kids meet twice a week for 30 minutes, a short time span to keep the kids’ attention. The program costs $95 a month and it meets year round with a break during the winter.
“Kids here learn to swim and they learn water safety,” Gullage said. “They learn to turn around and make it to a wall if they fall in the water.”
Priscilla Guerrero, 34, has been taking her two girls, Ava, 6, and Gia, 3, to the program for a year. She and her husband want to build a pool but they want their girls to know how to swim before they do.
“We live in South Florida, they need to know how to swim, it’s very important,” she said.
Guerrero’s friend, Sibia Espinola, 33, has been bringing her 4-year-old daughter, Mia, to the program for about the same time.
Espinola admits that not being a good swimmer herself motivated her to take her daughter to swimming lessons.
“I’m a terrible swimmer, so I want her to be a good swimmer,” she said.
And in Florida’s case, a city of good swimmers can save lives.
Every year, Torres with the county’s parks department hosts a grassroots fundraiser called iSwim for Jenny. This year, from Aug 9-15, participants can swim laps and raise money at the different participating city pools. Raising money will be Torres’ and the organization’s goal, but water safety will be a recurring theme stressed throughout the week.
“Anything can happen,” Torres said. “Learning how to swim gives you an advantage where you can protect your own life, and even save another.”