Water Safety Camps in Texas Help Teach Young Swimmers

Rap songs, a children's book and visits from local first responders.

The Houston Chronicle reports those are just a few of the tools recently employed to teach children from The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Houston how to stay safe this summer around the water.

"It's an awesome opportunity to get our youth into pools and get them swimming," said Erin Smith, unit director for the Aldine Westfield Boys & Girls Club. "And if every youth here goes away with some swimming skills, I think we've accomplished our goal."

The ZAC Foundation, which co-sponsored the camp, is a nationwide organization that seeks to educate families about water safety and advocates for "pool safety legislation," according to its website. It partners with local groups across the country -- including The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Houston -- to host water safety camps.

Smith said she believes that this is the fourth year the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Houston have put on a ZAC Camp. More than 100 children enrolled in the four-day camp, which featured three components: basic swimming and water safety lessons in the pool, an educational class outside of the water and presentations from local law enforcement.

"Our biggest goal is to teach youth how to swim," Smith said. "We know that in the community that we service, most of our youth are black and brown and that is the highest level of drowning in the area."

A 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black children aged 5-19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times that of white children. Black children ages 11-12 drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times that of white children.

According to 2017 data from the USA Swimming Foundation -- in collaboration with the University of Memphis and University of Nevada-Las Vegas -- about 64% of black children have no or low swimming ability, as compared with 45% of Latino children and 40% of white children.

According to the YMCA, several factors contribute to these disparities. Among the factors cited are institutional racism, including a history of segregation and the privatization of swimming pools, a lack of representation of people of color in swimming sports and having parents who do not know how to swim can all impact these numbers.

From Jan. 1, 2019 through June 17, 40 children have drowned in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Eight of those drownings took place in Harris County and three took place in Fort Bend County.

The ZAC Foundation was co-founded by Karen and Brian Cohn -- whose 6-year-old son, Zachary, drowned after his arm was caught in a pool drain.

"We thought we did everything we were supposed to do to keep our children safe but we actually had no idea about drain entrapments," Karen Cohn told the Chronicle in a telephone interview.

She said drowning prevention isn't always the first thing on people's minds, and the foundation seeks to educate families about water safety practices. This year, it is sponsoring 18 camps across the country.

In a water safety class, kids clad in swimsuits and summer clothes snacked on Chex Mix and used markers and colored pencils to write poems and rap songs about water safety. Hailey Davis, 8, said her favorite part was learning about safe pools. Kennedi Pride, 9, said she enjoyed the swim lessons the most.

Treslyn Onajoko, a Salvation Army program coordinator who taught the class, said it was important for the kids to know their limits.

"It's really important so they can know how to be safe," she said. "They can say `Oh, I need a life vest, I need a floatie, because I know I'm not at that skill level.' Because I just jumped into the water and nearly drowned."

The class used "The Polar Bear Who Couldn't, Wouldn't Swim" -- a children's book written by the foundation's co-founders -- to teach kids to swim with adult supervision, respect barriers fencing off water, take swim classes and distinguish between dangerous and safe pool drains.

In the Salvation Army's swimming pool, lifeguards taught children how to kick in the water and dog paddle. In the building's chapel kids watched a video about beach safety and a presentation from the Galveston Island Beach Patrol.

Kevin Knight, with the Galveston Island Beach Patrol, said the presentation touched on topics such as the buddy system, life jackets and communicating with lifeguards at the beach.

"You don't want to go somewhere blind, not knowing what's going on," he said. "I think it's important to educate and make sure they know what they're dealing with down there and how to avoid an accident happening."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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