Teach Them to Swim arms area kids with life skill

The drowning deaths of four children in the Iowa River this summer brought into crisp focus the issue of water safety.

When 10-year-old Andres Favela drowned in the river in June, staff at the Marshalltown YMCA/YWCA and Lenihan Intermediate School put the wheels in motion to start a program that offers swim lessons to area fifth graders. Before the program was even able to gain traction, the Iowa River took the lives of three more children – Leh Meh, 9, her brother Sae Reh, 7, and their 7-year-old cousin Thay Mo.

Organizers kicked the process into overdrive.

Bianca Greazel, development director at the Y, said there is a presumption that fifth graders know how to swim. Many of the roughly 60 students who graduated from the Teach Them to Swim program beginning Wednesday had never been in a swimming pool.

“Looking at Day One and looking today, I am amazed at the success,” she said.

Children enrolled in the 16-week program took lessons twice a week from Y instructors, a few of whom are also teachers at Lenihan.

At the presentation, instructor Gretchen Taylor, who is also a teacher at Lenihan, said the kids have come a long way.

Teach Them to Swim aims to teach 200 kids how to swim over two years. Greazel and Ralph Bryant, principal at Lenihan, said the program serves an immediate need, and the Y and the school will continue to look for a more long-term solution.

With the help of Bryant, Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper presented life jackets to the first batch of students at the Y Wednesday.

“It’s a great example of the community coming together to address a problem,” Tupper said.

Donations from area businesses and citizens funded the program, which cost roughly $100 per child.

Greazel and Bryant stressed that the program does more than teach children to swim, it also arms them with a life skill.

The second session of Teach Them to Swim begins Jan. 21. Greazel said organizers were scrambling to get the program in place following the four children drowning, but that since its inception it has become streamlined and will continue to be flexible.

The Y sets the criteria for determining which children to invite into the program, Greazel said, while Lenihan identifies the students based on economic need and need for swim lessons. Organizers chose fifth grade for logistical purposes.

Greazel said other cultures, particularly those from Southeast Asia, have an affinity for the water, but often children do not learn the necessary water safety ahead of time.

Ultimately, Bryant said, the program’s goal is to make kids confident in the water, which will in turn make them safer.

Greazel said she is confident the program will continue its success; community support has been very strong.

“It is my hope that that level of commitment continues,” Bryant said.