Preventing Drownings With Free Swim Lessons

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At least one or two days almost every summer, the sirens and helicopters can be heard hovering over the beach after the lifeguards have gone home for the day. The all-too-familiar sound usually indicates that someone has drowned. Since 2011, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and the NYC Department of Education has been trying to curb these preventable tragedies. Through Swim for Life, young children are learning to swim at area pools for free. For the first time, the pool on the Far Rockaway High School (FRHS) campus is being utilized as part of the program.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday, for a 10-week program that began in mid-October, second grade students from local elementary schools, P.S. 104 and Wave Prep, visit the FRHS Campus for 40-minute sessions to learn a sport that can potentially save their lives. One day a week, the kids from an entire second grade class are bussed over for the sessions to incorporate the swim lessons in their learning. For some students, it’s their first time getting familiar with the pool. Many start out below Level 1, which is a mastery of pool ability that will ensure safe swimming. To achieve Level 1, the kids are taught simple skills such as floating, breathing control, changing directions/position (front to back) and entering/exiting the water, to give them more confidence. According to Parks, 83 percent of students achieve Level 1 after the 10 weeks. They achieve Level 2 when they can swim one lap in the pool.

The Rockaway Times paid a visit on Tuesday, October 31 to observe the students of P.S. 104 learn skills in their third week. Aquatics specialist Gary Walunas, stood before the kids in the pool and used games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light, to motivate them to perform certain moves like kicking while sitting on the pool wall, or getting in and out of the water. “Some of the kids are scared of the water, so we’re still in the stage of getting them used to it,” Walunas said. “But by the 10th week, I’m hoping that about 70 percent will be able to make it from one side of the pool to the other.”

Walunas, who usually teaches in Flushing, said the chance to teach kids in Rockaway at their hometown pool is big. “The opportunity to use this pool in Far Rockaway is huge because there are very few pools in Rockaway for kids to learn how to swim,” Walunas said.

The opportunity was made possible due to a grant from the USA Swimming Foundation, which provides funding for a portion of the Swim for Life program, which takes place across the city. A recent USA Swimming Foundation grant allowed for the expansion to FRHS. Swim for Life Director Peter Khonstamm was determined to bring the program to Rockaway after seeing the number of drowning incidents on its beaches. With the extra funding, he approached the principals of the four schools that make up the FRHS Campus to ask for permission to use the school’s pool. The principals were more than willing to put the underutilized pool to use so that the young kids could learn an important skill, while getting comfortable with a school campus that they’ll likely attend in the future. They recommended P.S. 104 and Wave Prep students for the program, as 80 percent of those students go on to attend high school at the Far Rockaway campus.

“We’re proud to host this program here because these students are an extension of us. In the next few years, they might be attending school here. Also, when we hear the number of swimmers that drown, you realize how important a program like this is and we’re excited to have it here,” Gary Dumornav, principal of Kappa VI said. “Why not share this with other schools? Imagine what these little fish are going to be like in 10 years when they’re starting on other swim teams or perhaps we’ll see our own students lifeguarding our beaches here,” William Johnson, the principal of the Academy of Medical Technology, said.

One student, Storm, who was nervous getting into the water at first, already has high hopes. “I like learning how to swim. I think I might join the swim team like my sister who’s 19,” the 7-year-old said. “We’ve been waiting for a program like this. It’s been really amazing,” Storm’s mom, Virginia Olivo said.

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