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New swimmers learn some lifesaving lessons

Youngsters learn their first swimming strokes and how to survive in water, thanks to a Kiwanis program.

The whistle blew, and 41 children jumped into the American Legion's swimming pool on Park Boulevard to begin their half-hour swimming lesson.

One teary-eyed girl clung to a volunteer while trying to kick her feet. Others, like 5-year-old Brandon Ruiz, were learning to trust _ and get used to _ the water. The Seminole boy was all smiles as he floated backward in the arms of a teenage volunteer.

"What a difference a few days into the program makes," said Bob Sims, coordinator of the Every Child A Swimmer program, through which the Kiwanis Club of Seminole has offered free lessons to Seminole-area children in kindergarten through fifth grade every year since 1985.

"Most of these kids in Level 1 were "wall-huggers' when they first started," said Sims, a retired Marine major and program coordinator. "Now, some of them have already gone on to the next level."

The free program, which has won several state and international Kiwanis awards during its 16-year existence, began May 1 and ends for the season Thursday. All youngsters who complete the program will receive T-shirts.

"This program has two objectives: water safety and survival," Sims said. "We're not trying to get anyone ready for the Olympics."

It is an especially important program because drownings among children under the age of 14 are all too common in Florida. The national organization Safekids reports that, although drownings among children 14 and younger declined from 1987 to 1997, more than 1,000 kids in that age group drowned nationwide in 1997, the last year for which statistics are available.

Also in 1997, there were 107 drowning deaths among youngsters 14 and younger in Florida, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. In all age groups that year, there were 348 drowning deaths in the state.

"If you live on the coast of Florida, it's a "must' to know how to swim," said David Johnston, as he watched his daughter, Jennifer, 6, swim a distance of about 4 feet to the waiting arms of a volunteer.

"What a difference this year," said Johnston, 40, of Seminole. "Last year, Jennifer dreaded coming here. But now she looks forward to her lessons. This program sure gives a parent peace of mind."

Ironically, it is the same pool in which Johnston had learned to swim as a child.

Johnston said his family has been attending the Kiwanis-sponsored program four years: first, with his daughter, Sarah, 9, a third-grader at Starkey Elementary School; now with Jennifer, a Starkey kindergartener, who had moved up to Level 2 after only a few days.

Level 1 is for children who need to develop confidence in the water, while the Level 2 is for children who can swim a few feet by themselves. Kids reach Level 3 only when they can swim the length of the pool. At all levels, the children are closely supervised by volunteer instructors.

The Kiwanis Club of Seminole budgets about $1,500 a year for the swimming program. That includes a $400 contribution from a fellow organization, the Kiwanis Seminole Breakfast Club.

Yolanda Ruiz, mother of Brandon, who is a kindergartener at Madeira Beach Elementary School, and Andrew, 6, a first-grader there, appreciates the efforts of the Kiwanians and other volunteers.

"I think it's a really wonderful program, and I'm glad my kids can be in it," she said. Ruiz of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said she and her children are temporarily living with relatives in Seminole.

"I am happy to be associated with this program," said Vicki Wood, 40, the program's certified water safety instructor who also teaches swimming and physical education at Seminole High School. "Many of my students first learned to swim here." She also learned at the pool when it was called Ridgewood.

Wood and Sims recruited about 20 Kiwanians, members of the Kiwanis-sponsored Seminole High School Key Club and the St. Petersburg Junior College's Circle K Clubs and other community volunteers to help with the program.