Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Swim Lessons Dive into Schools

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Swim Lessons Dive into Schools

Article excerpt

Broward County Swim Central program becomes a model drowning prevention program.

Once a destination for vacationers and retirees, South Florida has developed into a year-round residence for thousands of young families. Along with the change in demographics have come new concerns affecting children who grow up in the Sunshine State surrounded by swimming pools and waterways.

In South Florida, drowning is the number one killer of children under the age of 5. From 1998 to 2000, there were a total of 34 drowning deaths of this demographic in Broward County, according to the county's medical examiner. Not surprising when you consider that there are 23 miles of beach frontage and 126 navigable miles of canals located within the one county.

The need for a drowning prevention program became clear when the average number of drowning deaths of children under 5 grew to an average of 10 deaths a year. Near-drowning accidents took its toll as well, with three out of four children suffering brain damage.

One of the first advocates to speak up about the problem was Miami Herald investigative reporter Ron Ishoy. In 1997, he called Sam Freas, who was then the director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and asked him what was being done about drowning prevention. The call set off a chain reaction that rallied local leaders from various public and private entities. One such person was Diana WassermanRubin, at the time a school board member, who had been instrumental in bringing the American Red Cross Whale Tales program to the county schools. The program taught children about water safety and had been part of the curriculum for at least 10 years.

At the end of 1997, a small ad-hoc committee met for the first time to address the magnitude of the problem. At the second meeting, representatives from all of the county agencies were invited to participate. Kim Burgess, then the assistant director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, attended the third meeting. "Broward County Commissioner Ilene lieberman assumed leadership of the committee and over the course of a year, we met every month to formulate a plan," recalls Burgess. "The most important discovery we made was that no one knew where to take their children for swim lessons."

"When we first started discussing the challenges of teaching every pre-firstgrade child in Broward County to swim, it was a very complicated challenge, in so much as the transportation cost exceeded the instructional cost," says Mike Harlan, assistant director, Broward County Parks and Recreation. "We had to formulate a plan to eliminate the transportation cost and provide additional pools that were in walking distance to elementary schools."

The consensus of the committee was to begin by developing a resource and referral strategy to provide parent education and raise community awareness -and to seek funding.

Another key question was: Who would house the program? Here, politics became an issue. If the program was to be at the county level, how would it appear if it was administered by the Red Cross or some other organization? "It would appear to be a Red Cross program," says Burgess. "We decided that it should be housed under a neutral umbrella." The logical non-competitive choice seemed to be the Broward County Parks and Recreation Division.

Swim Central Established

Community outreach began with a concerted resource and referral initiative, including TV commercials, brochures and flyers, which were distributed in parks and libraries. The drowning prevention message really hit a nerve, as phone calls started to pour in on the special hotline that Miami Herald's Ishoy had arranged.

Swim Central was formally established in 1999 as a joint effort between the Broward County government, Florida Legislature and the School Board of Broward County. In April 1999, Burgess was named director of the program. Her background in sports marketing management with the International Swimming Hall of Fame made her highly qualified for the position. …

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