A year after tragic drownings, water safety efforts persist

One year ago Thursday, the drowning deaths of three children devastated a community still struggling to cope with the ugliness of another drowning that struck just weeks earlier.

On July 4 last year, less than three weeks after the Iowa River took the life of 10-year-old Andres Favela, it also took Lee Meh, 9, her brother Sae Reh, 7, and their cousin, 7-year-old girl Thay Mo. The news horrified the community. Many saw the drowning deaths as symptomatic of a cultural divide, one that led the youngsters to swim in the river without the proper understanding of water safety.

Not long after, the tragedies spawned two programs: Splash 4 Life and Teach Them to Swim. While the programs differ in their approach, they both aim to enable children to enjoy the water safely in hopes that no more innocent lives are lost out of ignorance.

Bianca Greazel, Marshalltown YMCA-YWCA development director, said the Y has already started preparing for the next session of the Teach Them to Swim program. School officials at Lenihan Intermediate School began targeting students who would most benefit from the program based on, among other things, their eligibility for free and reduced lunch.

The Y graduated 48 fifth-and-sixth-grade students during the second session of the 16-week course in mid-May. Although fewer kids participated in the second session than did first session, Greazel said she is optimistic that turning out to school registration will increase participation. Organizers hoped to graduate 200 kids each of its two years but barely eclipsed the halfway mark of that goal for the first year.

Greazel said being able to talk to students face-to-face has helped increase interest in the program. Many parents gave no response to the letter school staff sent home with students, she said. Having parents present with their children during registration helped eliminate the divide between parents and staff. Additionally, she said having the kids and the parents together helps give staff a better picture of the need.

“We can talk to the students one-on-one and ask ‘what’s your swimming ability, where do you typically swim,'” Greazel said. “The kids’ answers are often different than the parents’.”

Although its not part of the Teach Them to Swim effort, Rogers University is also providing similar swimming lessons to 70 kids.

While the program still has room for improvement, Greazel said Y staff have continued to refine it as it moves forward.

Y staff anticipate higher turnout for the new session, which begins Sept. 4. The program can accommodate up to 96 kids.

Meanwhile, Splash 4 Life has hit a bit of a snag. Organizers Leigh Bauder and Misty Smith said while they failed to secure a $25,000 grant to help fund the installation of splash pads in a local park, they are not giving up.

“Even though we’ve had some hiccups It’s going to happen. Marshalltown will have a splash pad,” Bauder said.

Originally, the women wanted splash pads in Riverview Park to act as a memorial for the four children killed in the Iowa River. However, flooding in the park has caused them to look at Anson Park, Bauder said. That park is centrally located with ample parking and restrooms, they said.

Anson Park was also the site of the city’s cool stations last year.

The city, particularly city council member Joel Greer and Parks and Recreation Director Terry Gray, has been supportive. However, with a $100,000 goal, the city has no money to invest in the project. Bauder and Smith are continuing fundraising efforts and are currently seeking in-kind donations as well as money.

Bauder said perhaps it was God’s timing that they didn’t get the grant, because, if they had, flooding would have halted the construction. After a meeting in Ankeny earlier this year, the two toured some splash pad sites and decided to contract Vortex, a Canada-based company that produces the most splash pads in the country, to build Marshalltown’s splash pad.

The women said although the enormity of the fundraising has been a little overwhelming, so too has the support they have seen from community members. It fuels their drive to push through until their dream comes to fruition.

“People haven’t forgotten,” Smith said.

To donate to Splash 4 Life, send checks made out to “Splash 4 Life” to PO Box 662, Marshalltown, Iowa 50158.