YMCA Sets Goal of Eliminating Childhood Drowning

NBC 5 Today is kicking off Swim Week with the YMCA with a series of stories aimed at keeping you and your family safe around the water this summer

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As we get closer to the Fourth of July weekend, there’s growing concern for drownings at area lakes, pools and ponds.

This – as the pandemic has also caused so many families to postpone or even skip swim lessons this past year.

NBC 5's Alanna Quillen is taking a deeper dive into the issue this week, teaming up with the YMCA chapters across North Texas to learn more about the programs aiming to keep families safe around the water this summer.

Eliminating Drownings

Texas ranks second to Florida in the country for fatal drownings. Many of these fatal incidents happen in backyard and apartment pools, and data shows 88% of kids who drown do so under adult supervision.

“It’s a silent killer,” said Curt Hazelbaker, president and CEO, YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas. “That’s what scary about it and people don’t think it happens that fast.”

The leaders of the largest YMCA chapters in our region spoke about their big plan to end those statistics once and for all. They believe the solution to end drowning could lie with them.

“We teach the most swim lessons nationwide. We’ve had a huge impact on those families that have small kids that are walking around their backyard pools,” said Eric Tucker, president and CEO of the Arlington-Mansfield YMCA.

Drowning is the second leading cause of death in kids ages 5 to 14 and it’s the leading cause of accidental death of children 1 to 5 years of age.

Part of the mission to drop drowning statistics involves getting as many kids as possible enrolled in swimming lessons, which can reduce the risk of drowning by 88%.

“Sometimes people and sometimes kids can build some confidence that might not be merited. They’re not quite ready yet. They don’t understand how deep water is and they don’t know how to use their bodies or anything like that. That’s why the YMCA is here to help alleviate that issue,” said Tucker.

The Pandemic Effect

Despite the pandemic, the YMCA said it saw an uptick in drownings last year in North Texas.

At least 80 drowning deaths were reported across the state in 2020 and so far in 2021, 31 children have already died.

Map of drownings across the state in 2021.

The YMCA fears the pandemic has caused a setback for some kids to refresh their skills or even learn how to swim.

“Swim lessons – they just put that on pause and think we got to get through everything. And now, you may have a generation of kids that haven’t taken swim lessons yet. We need to get them in the water,” said Hazelbaker.

“We haven’t had kids getting together as much we didn’t have day camp at our facilities last year. And we haven’t been having the same amount of swim lessons as we had previously,” said Tucker.

Because of the backlog on access to swimming lessons, there is now a waitlist for swimming lessons at some YMCA locations – which is a good sign.

“So now we see this huge demand of families coming back just for that instruction. Because quite frankly, they’re worried about their kids, especially as they go out and the summer months progress,” said Tucker.

However, the YMCA has received a gift of $250,000 to help expand their swim lessons.

“We’ll use the grant to make this program truly year round,” said Hazelbaker.

He said he’s also hoping to partner with local school districts in the future.

“They’ve got the kids, we’ve got the water. Can they bring the kids to us? We will have guards and instructors can teach them,” Hazelbaker said.

Another effort to end drowning is the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition, which hosts low-cost water survival training for kids and adults to teach them lifesaving skills. During the pandemic, they kept the lessons going virtually.

“Floating, treading water, getting back to the side of the pool if you fall in,” said Jaquelyn Kotar, a board member the coalition and vice president of aquatics for the Fort Worth YMCA. "It’s not like riding a bike. They have to keep going, they have to keep learning how to swim."

The coalition works with the city of Fort Worth, local swim schools, the Junior League, and the YMCA to teach kids the basics of water survival.

Local firefighters also teach parents safety basics like CPR. Click here to register for a class this summer.

“We talk to them about open water safety and about layers of protection when they’re around water,” Kotar said.

She added that they want to grow the coalition, but they are limited by volunteers. Click here if you are interested in volunteering.

Tarrant County Challenges

Partnerships like these are important especially in Tarrant County, which has its own set of challenges.

“We lead the state in the amount of drownings and it really covers all ages and races,” said Tucker.

Those statistics shocked Mike Brown, the president and CEO of the Fort Worth YMCA. He recently took the helm in Texas after moving from a leadership position with a YMCA in New York state.

“Texas has a lot of work to do when it comes to teaching kids and families and making them aware of the dangers of water,” he said. “We have a long way to go and educating parents in the importance of their kids getting formal instruction.”

His goal is to get more funding for swim lessons and potentially make swim lessons including in memberships, similar to chapters in New York.

“If we can get our first second and third graders and teach them early, then we can prevent this,” Brown said. “Safety around water is definitely underfunded. That’s going to take time, funding and resources to make sure that we get every child an opportunity.”

Kotar believes the issue in Tarrant County could be because of a lack of access to public pools.

"On top of that, we have people going to lakes because of the lack of access and usually lakes are usually not guarded,” she said.

But still, most drownings happen during adult supervision. So aside from swim lessons, Kotar said educating parents is also key.

"You should be constantly vigilant over your children or the people you are watching in the water," she said. “Bringing them to a pool even if there’s a lifeguard doesn't mean you shouldn’t watch your children.”

This year, Kotar said the YMCA gave out grants for free swim lessons to families, further spreading the life-saving skills. They're also teaching a simple habit to kids.

“The YMCA curriculum teaches children to ask for permission before they enter the water - this is something that should be reiterated at home," she said. “It would eliminate so many of the problems we have with unplanned swim time.”

Each day this week, NBC 5 Today will be airing a special series stories with the YMCA aimed at keeping you and your family safe around the water this summer. Stay tuned!

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