Mindy York took her eyes off her 17-month-old daughter Staci for “a second” so that she could wrap her son in a towel. When she turned back around, she found Staci lying at the bottom of a pool.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was horrifying,” York said. “I had to breathe life back into her.”
York enrolled Staci in swimming lessons the next day.
Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional deaths in children ages 1 to 4, mostly occurring in home swimming pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In early July, a 4-year-old Plantation boy died from drowning in his backyard pool after his grandmother fell asleep.
In 2000, York and Marlene Bloom co-founded Baby Otter Swim School, now known as the Baby Otter Andre Dawson Aquatic Center, to promote water safety. Bloom, who was previously a high school physical education teacher, was the one who taught Staci to swim.
Now, 30 years later, Staci York teaches water survival classes for Baby Otter, which sends instructors to backyard and community pools across Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, teaching children and adults how to swim in five days.
Baby Otter’s staple program is called Turn, Kick, Reach, which teaches children as young as 9 months what to do if they fall into the water. Turn, Kick, Reach is taught through five consecutive days, emphasizing turning around in the water, propelling the legs and reaching toward a pool wall. Afterwards, students can advance to three levels of Beginning Strokes.
“Our philosophy is that we want them to learn immediately,” Bloom said.
Baby Otter also teaches swimming to those with special needs, from students with Down syndrome and autism to those who are hearing and visually impaired, as well as men and women who have Parkinson’s disease. It also teaches adults how to swim.
Cathlyn Crehan, the mother of two autistic children, Indiana, 9, and Layla, 10, learned about Baby Otter five years ago from her pediatrician.
One swim school had turned her away because they didn’t think they could teach her children in a five-day period and another said they didn’t want to deal with behavioral issues of autistic children.
Through Baby Otter, Layla and Indiana learned to swim in five days. In fact, Layla picked up the Turn, Kick, Reach method in only two days, allowing her to progress to the backstroke during the remaining three days. In early August, she’ll compete in a Special Olympics competition at Nova Southeastern University.
“They did not treat my children like they were disabled; they treated them as if they were children who needed to learn to save their own lives,” Crehan said.
In an effort to prevent future deaths, York and Bloom want their lessons to go global. This week, they started licensing their program.
Dawson, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010 and a Miami Marlins executive, lent his name to the school because it taught him how to swim at age 50.
“I went through everything, the basics, the fundamentals and grasped the concept,’’ said Dawson, now 61. “It’s a no-brainer for adults to teach their kids how to swim, and know how to swim themselves. Especially here in South Florida, where we are surrounded by so much water and where you have pools. You see the incidents and fatalities as a result of kids being unattended.’’
Baby Otter’s first offer for a license is from an individual in Thailand.
York and Bloom pride themselves in Baby Otter’s state and national certification. Future owners of the Baby Otter franchises must come to South Florida for up to 30 days of training, which will include class time, pool time and shadowing current instructors.
York wants to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to “have a water-safe day.”
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For more information about the Baby Otter Andre Dawson Aquatic Center, go to www.babyotterandredawson.com