Local water safety effort gains traction

Last summer, four children drowned in the Iowa River in a tragic turn of events that left Marshalltown residents wondering about water safety and the cultural underpinnings that could have played a role.

The Marshalltown YMCA/YWCA and Lenihan Intermediate School decided they would do what they could to help ensure local children are capable of handling themselves in the water. The Teach Them to Swim program identifies children who would benefit most from free swim lessons and enrolls them in the program.

Donations from area businesses, individual donations and a Community Foundation grant fund the 16-week Teach Them to Swim program, which amounts to roughly $100 per child.

Sarah Whitehead, Marshalltown, enrolled her 11-year-old daughter Selena in the program. She adopted the girl right around the time the children drown in the Iowa River.

“She didn’t have any confidence or knowledge (of swimming),” Whitehead said. “She progressed very quickly. The first week, she was nervous to get in the water. Within weeks, she and others were jumping in the deep end trying different strokes.”

Whitehead said her family plans to spend a lot of time at pools and the beach this summer, and she knows Selena is ready. She recommended Teach Them to Swim to other parents, saying the one-on-one time the instructors spend with the students made a big difference, and she said she hopes the program continues so other can benefit from it.

Organizers aims to graduate 200 fifth grade students from the program in each of its two years, and with the most recent batch of graduates getting their diplomas and life vests Wednesday, it is still slightly behind that goal a year into the program.

Bianca Greazel, development director at the Y, said Y and Lenihan staff are working to bolster participation in the program. They plan to be at school registration at Miller Middle School later this year.

“I think there is just a disconnect between sending (the notification) home and getting them to return it,” Greazel said.

Although fewer students are participating in the Teach Them to Swim program this session, Greazel said attendance was higher than the first session. She attributes that, in part, to being able to follow up with the school, prompting its staff to touch base with the student to understand why a student missed one of their twice-a-week sessions.

Greazel said organizers have worked out many of the snags the program hit during the first session.

The first batch of 60 students completed the program in January, and another 45 finished Wednesday.

Ralph Bryant, principal at Lenihan, said the school is still planning for next year’s program. The program helps school staff, some of which are swim instructors at the Y, interact with students in more than one way.

“We are always working on connecting on an academic level, but this helps us connect with them in some other areas, like social skills,” Bryant said.

The program has seen noticeable progress for many of its student, Bryant and Greazel said. Bryant said progress is different for each child, depending on the child’s starting point. For some, it’s being able to get in the water without fear; for others, it’s being able to swim to the end of the pool alone. The result is the same: the students are comfortable and, therefore safe, in the water.

Greazel said the kids see the value of the opportunity they have been given and are excited to share their newfound skills with those around them.

During the presentation of the children’s life jackets and certificates acknowledging their completion of the program, Bryant took a moment to reflect on how the loss of those who died in the Iowa River, particularly 10-year-old Lenihan student Andres Favela, has impacted his students.

“He is the young man who is in my mind when I think about swimming,” Bryant said of Favela.

Looking out at the crowd of his students who completed the program, he said he swelled with pride, and he told the students to wear their life jackets with the same pride. They have come a long way.