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Experts say more affordable access to swim lessons is key to reducing child drownings

Danny Richardson, 6, left, and Jade Gamarra 5, enjoy their lessons at the summer swim program at Gibson Park pool.
The Miami Herald
Danny Richardson, 6, left, and Jade Gamarra 5, enjoy their lessons at the summer swim program at Gibson Park pool.

The death of 8-year-old Ryan Amichette, who drowned this month in a neighbor’s pool in Fort Lauderdale cast a tragic spotlight on a public health issue for young children nationwide but especially in South Florida.

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The American Red Cross.

The CDC reported that more than 4,500 people died each year from 2020 to 2022, a significant increase after decades of decline. Blacks had among the highest drowning rates. So far this year, at least 46 Florida children have drowned to death.

Two South Florida advocates of water safety, who appeared on Friday's edition of the South Florida Roundup, told WLRN host Tim Padgett that safe access to water and supervision are keys to prevent such deaths.

READ MORE: After years in decline, U.S. drowning deaths are rising again

Bridget McKinney is the principal at Carol City Senior High School and the president and founder of Professionals Sharing With a Purpose (P-SWAP), based in Opa-locka.

Her organization’s annual Child Safety Learn to Swim Program at Sherbondy Park pool has brought swimming lessons to more than 4,000 underserved minority children.

“Kids love water. They [attempt] to get to the bodies of water at any point [and it’s] not just pools [but] ponds, lakes, any waterfronts. We have to be very vigilant,” she said.

McKinney says that she's found barriers when it comes to getting children access to water safety instruction, particularly due to the fact that the parents themselves have not been exposed to water or swimming classes.

“That tone is translated in those households, unfortunately. If [parents] don't learn to swim — as adults, [they] probably would not encourage a child to learn [how] to swim. Breaking down those barriers is [about] continuing messaging like we're doing right now.”

Anna Stewart, manager of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County, works toward educating residents and visitors on water safety. They provide free land-based water safety programming as well as free and reduced-cost swim programs.

She said it’s just as important that adults and caretakers learn how to swim.

“Oftentimes we think of children drowning, but in Palm Beach County, we have seniors that are drowning because they're by themselves in a body of water,” Stewart said. “So I think it's an important reminder that drowning can happen to anyone regardless of their age, race, gender and socioeconomic background.”

Stewart said bringing swim instructions to schools could reduce the number of drowning deaths.

“It's important for us to have a curriculum within the school system itself, talking about the importance of water safety and drowning prevention,” she said.

“I like to say I'm not here to scare you. I'm here to prepare you. Learning to swim is a life saving skill, and I cannot say that enough because parents put their Children in all different types of sports. They spend a lot of money," she said. "But yet, we know that learning to swim can save one's life.”

Stewart said getting children excited about learning to swim will hopefully push characters at home to do the same.

The high cost of swimming lessons is also a hurdle for many parents, according to the advocates. Classes can run as much as $60 or higher. McKinney points out that The American Red Cross provides funding for free swim instruction to those who apply through the Centennial Campaign.

“The Centennial Campaign allows programs to sign up. Their organizations, counties or municipalities can receive those scholarships,” she said. “The American Red Cross provides a supplemental amount so that [they] can offer [water safety] programming at no cost.”

One of the campaign's key components is to create a sustainable ecosystem of water safety to help make communities safer.

The Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis are also seeking ways to reduce drowning deaths.

Earlier this month, top state officials urged Floridians to emphasize safety while swimming this summer, as at least 46 kids have drowned this year. Most in swimming pools.

“Drowning is preventable, and it is also the No. 1 cause of unintentional death of children ages 1 to 4," Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez told reporters during a June 5 press conference.

Officials encouraged swimming lessons and for people to learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation and how to give first aid. They also said people should check weather conditions and rip tides before swimming.

They also noted a new law that created a swimming-lesson voucher program that begins July 1.

The law (SB 544), passed during this year’s legislative session, requires the state Department of Health to establish a network of swimming-lesson providers to participate in the program.

Vouchers will cover costs of lessons for families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which, for instance, would be $60,000 for a family of four. To be eligible, families will need to have one or more children 4 years old or younger.

Helen Acevedo, is WLRN's anchor for All Things Considered.
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