Y provides free water safety program to students

Island third-graders are making a splash in a new water safety program offered by the YMCA.

Students from the Chilmark, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury schools will participate in two water sessions in the Y’s swimming pool. The program began November 17 and runs through December 14. The Y provides the program free to the students, who receive bus transportation from their schools to the facility, paid for with field trip funds.

Children learn how to select and use a personal flotation device (PFD), the help position, and basic swim skills such as floating and treading water without a PFD. They also practice how to get in and of a boat and what to do if it capsizes, and how to help someone in the water with reaching and throwing assists. It’s not all work and no play, however, with free swim and waterslide time built into the hour-long sessions.

“These are all important life skills, especially for children who live on an island and are surrounded by water,” aquatics coordinator Kelly McBride said. “It’s a fun program, plus it gets the children here and helps us and their teachers recognize who the non-swimmers are in the group, so we can offer them some assistance.”

Ms. McBride said she created the Island school program from elements from her personal experience with children as a swim instructor, as well as standards in the YMCA’s “Learn to Swim” program. It is the first of its kind for the new Y facility, which celebrated its grand opening on June 19.

“We wish we could do more, but this is a great start,” she said. “We decided we’d start with third graders and see how it goes, and then later, we hope we’ll be able to expand it to more grades.”

On Tuesday, about 35 Oak Bluffs School third-graders eagerly returned for their second session. Gym teacher Deb Brown and teacher assistants Kathryn DeBettencourt and Katie Mauro accompanied them and patiently adjusted a multitude of slippery swim caps and flapping PFD straps. Third-grade teachers Deborah Hammett, Jennifer Bausman, and Kate McCormick remained back at school on dry land.

Although Ms. DeBettencourt said a couple of children were a little nervous about getting into the pool the week before, everyone frolicked like otters the second time around.

The students received instruction in small groups in different sections of the 25-yard pool. Julian Villegas, senior program director, helped groups of two or three students at a time into a small inflatable boat at the far end of the pool, steadied by swim instructor and lifeguard Ryan Leandro, who was in the water.

After lots of assurance and plenty of preparation beforehand, Mr. Leandro gently capsized the boat and dumped each group into the water. Then he showed them how to clasp hands and cling together while propped up on the overturned boat, how to climb onto it, and how to duck under it for protection from the elements, if outdoors.

Josh Sampaio declared the boat drill “the funnest thing.”

“Fun” turned out to be the standard response from several eight- and nine-year olds asked for comment, who had little interest in more than a one-word reply while mesmerized by the shimmering swimming pool.

Tyla Packish, however, struck a more serious note. “It’s fun learning to save people,” she said.

At the other end of the pool, swim instructor and lifeguard Michael Wooley coached students from the pool in how to assist people in the water with swim noodles and rings.

“All of us are volunteering our time to provide this program to the school system,” Mr. Villegas said. “That’s why this place was built, to help the community.”

Superintendent of schools James Weiss is a big supporter of the swim safety program for schools and was instrumental in bringing it to fruition, Mr. Villegas said.

“One of the first things we did when we opened was to try to figure out what we could do right away as community outreach,” YMCA executive director Jill Robie said in a phone call yesterday.

“One issue that was identified early on is that there are a lot of children at fairly older ages, who get involved in Island summer programs like Sailing Camp, that don’t know how to swim.”

Since knowing how to swim is especially important for children who live on an Island and the YMCA is known for good swimming instruction, Ms. Robie said it made sense to make a swim safety program one of the facility’s first efforts.

“Our goal is that by the time children get to high school, they would be water-safe,” Ms. Robie said. “We can’t guarantee they’ll be able to swim, but they’ll at least have the skills to save themselves or help someone else.”

On Tuesday Derek Andrade and Ken Rusczyk also were on duty as lifeguards.

“My last job was as an Oak Bluffs selectman,” Mr. Rusczyk said. “I came out of retirement for this, because I love this facility.”

Judging from the smiles on the third-graders’ faces, they appeared to feel the same way.