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Water safety remains a priority for entities across Hillsborough County

Brandon Sports & Aquatics Center instructor Tianna Person teaching mobile swim lessons to kids at Bayou Pass in Ruskin. The Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA has partnered with Brandon Sports & Aquatic Center on a free mobile water safety program where instructors travel to pools located in apartment complexes and local neighborhoods and give free lessons. Photo courtesy of Tampa Metro YMCA
Published Jun. 7, 2018

Summertime is here, which calls for vacations, fun in the sun, and much time spent at beaches and pools.

But not at the expense of a child's safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning continues to be the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4 and most occur in home swimming pools.

The statistic reflects a clear need to provide kids with survival swimming skills, especially when kids escape adult supervision or safety fences and barriers aren't in place. Experts say with proper instruction, children taking informal swim lessons can reduce drowning by 88 percent.

A number of organizations throughout Hillsborough County have taken action to address the issue. Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center CEO Chuck Burgess believes the biggest problem is the unlimited access to water and the lack of education and preparation.

"Families need to be educated post-birth and understand that a child can drown in just an inch of water, so it doesn't take much," Burgess said.

"It needs to be a community effort, families should be equipping their house and surroundings even before that child is born and talking to their neighbors in preparation for that child to be born."

Burgess also says it's just not a priority or even a thought for some lower income families that cannot afford swim lessons, or in some cases there is a generational fear of water that makes families hesitant to get their children swim lessons especially if they have had a traumatic experience before.

"It's almost like fire; they're taught to stay away from it, and there's always that belief that, 'It's not going to happen to my kid.' So, you have these children that aren't going to learn how to swim and if they're left unattended that water becomes somewhat of an attraction to them."

USA Swimming Foundation reports that 79 percent of children in households with incomes less than $50,000 have little to-no swimming ability, and according to the CDC, between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages.

Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center (BSAC) partnered with The Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA with its free mobile water safety program to provide free mobile swim lessons to children that may not have access or the resources to do so.

"The goal is to eliminate barriers that can prevent parents from getting their kids into water safety or swim classes, and to make an impact in the drowning prevention numbers that we unfortunately see in the community" said Amanda Walker, Tampa Y Aquatics Experience Executive.

"We want to remove challenges such as transportation issues, a hectic work schedule and other deterrents. We are very big believers that even if one child is saved then the program is accomplishing its goal."

Mobile swim lessons are available to children ages 3-14, but Walker encourages parents to get kids in the water at six months because the earlier they start the more comfortable they are, and once kids reach the age of 3, it is easier to pick up those skills because they are already familiar with water.

The YMCA also provides water safety education classes for adults to educate on layers of protection such as having door alarms, or gates and fences around backyard pools.

Thanks to a $114,000 grant from the Children's Board of Hillsborough County this year, the Tampa YMCA and Brandon Sports & Aquatic Center are able to serve up to 600 kids this summer at 25 various sites, and travel to pools located in apartment complexes and local neighborhoods especially in East and South Tampa, to provide free lessons in basic water safety and swimming skills.

This summer is the program's fourth year, and it began in 2014 when there were eight reported drowning deaths in Hillsborough County according to the Medical Examiner's Office. In 2015, there were still eight reported drownings, but by 2016 that dropped to four, and last year in 2017 it decreased to three.

"This is what we know needs to happen because we know that there will be a continual need," said Children's Board director of public relations Paula Scott. "There's pools, ponds and lakes everywhere, so we plan to continue the relationship and get that down to 0."

Meanwhile, Seal Swim School recently opened its fifth location this May in Riverview at 10459 Gibsonton Drive, to expand its reach and teach swimming safety and survival classes year around in its indoor facility.

Since 1987, it serves children and adults, and even those with special needs, providing safety education in each of its programs as well as free water safety presentations for adults and free swimming lessons for at-risk families.

"At Seal we believe in putting a ring of safety around your child which means supervision always, getting swim lessons, learning CPR, and putting up pool barriers," said Melanie Stairs, Marketing Manager.

"The disconnect is education and communicating where parents can get the tools that they need. It's really just about getting the message out there and talking about how important it is to get your child into early continuous swimming lessons."

Water Smart Tots, a Lithia-based nonprofit that won a WEDU Be More Award this year, also aims to eliminate pediatric drowning in the Tampa Bay area.

She started Water Smart Tots, a nonprofit organization, after her son experienced a nearly fatal drowning incident at a friend's pool when he was 16 months, and now provides one-on-one personalized survival swimming lessons to infants and young children ages 12 months to six years who are financially underprivileged, or who have special needs.

"The important thing is awareness," Bahour said. "People need to understand the difference between traditional swimming lessons and water safety education classes.

"Traditional swimming lessons teach confidence and to love the water, and survival swim lessons give them the skills to survive in case an accident happens. Kids don't need to learn to love the water and become over confident and under competent."

Contact Monique Welch at


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