When Karina Medina took swimming lessons for the first time at age 8, she did not expect to become a lifeguard. Now at 17, her role is to protect others from a frequent occurrence in South Florida: drowning.
According to the Miami-Dade Drowning Prevention Coalition, drowning is the county’s leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4.
“It is sad to hear about all these kids drowning either in private homes, or a friend’s home, on a beach or a facility,” said Ana Fernandez, pool manager at Palm Springs North Pool, one of 10 locations that offer the Learn-to-Swim program each summer in Miami-Dade County to decrease the number of drowning.
“We have a commitment that every child in Miami-Dade County should know how to swim,” said Jim O’Connor, aquatic program manager at Miami-Dade County. “Swimming lessons are a key component to any drowning prevention program.”
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This year, the program began Monday and new sessions start every two weeks. All swim lessons are taught by American Red Cross-certified lifeguards.
Evening sessions maintain the normal year-round price of $60. The morning sessions are only for beginners and cost $10.
The lower price is made possible through the support of the community.
“Many commissioners sponsor scholarships throughout the summer for our Learn-to-Swim program,” O’Connor said.
Beginners whose families cannot afford the lessons are eligible for a one-session scholarship funded by the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade and the Swim for Jenny Memorial Fund.
The program is divided by level and age range: toddlers, school-age children and adults.
Children ages 2 to 5 must take Parent & Tot classes, which require a parent to be in the water with the child.
Cecilia and Mauricio Vargas enrolled in the Parent & Tot classes at Palm Springs North Pool with their daughter, Angelina, 6, when she was a toddler.
“I live in a house that has a lake in the back, so I wonder that one day they [my daughters] might fall,” Cecilia Vargas said.
This year, they enrolled again with their youngest daughter, Valentina, 3.
“I like the teachers. The same teacher that taught my oldest daughter is teaching my little one now,” Vargas said, referring to Emily Llerena. “She’s super sweet.”
Fernandez said that, like the Vargas family, most families return to Palm Springs North Pool annually.
“I have parents who have been here for six years. They come every year hoping that the same lifeguard is still here,” Fernandez said.
For some graduates of the Learn-to-Swim program, their swimming goes beyond the basics.
Medina is one of them.
“I actually took Learn-to-Swim classes here, and I went through the whole process of level 1, level 2 and level 3,” Medina said. “Then, I transitioned into the swim team.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular swimming is beneficial to decrease the risk of chronic illness, improve mental health, make connections with others and decrease disability.
“It is one of the best lifelong sports that you could participate in,” O’Connor said.
According to CDC, it is also important to take precautions.
Each Learn-to-Swim session includes “safety days,” where children and parents get tips for water safety.
“These classes taught me how to get myself out of certain situations, like if I’m going down, and I cannot reach the surface, to put my face straight up so I can get my breath quicker,” Medina said.
Medina became a lifeguard and will be working at Palm Springs North Pool in the summer. She believes the highest value of knowing how to swim is to be safe.
“It is just preventative, especially being in Florida. We are a peninsula,” Medina said. “That is something you need to take into account when you are raising a family here.”
Registration will be open throughout the summer as long as spots remain available. There are 80 spots per hour in the morning and 30 spots per hour in the evening. More classes may open depending on demand.
For more information
Learn-to-Swim classes began Monday.
All sessions are two weeks long. Children with disabilities may participate.
Morning sessions (beginner classes only) - $10; evening sessions (beginner, advanced and adult classes) - $60.
For all locations and hours, visit miamidade.gov/parks/learn-to-swim-program.asp.
To donate scholarship funds, visit parkstore.miamidade.gov/LearnToSwim.aspx