Making a splash

Water Safety Program at the YMCA teaches third graders how to keep afloat.


When the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard opened nine years ago, aquatics director Kelly Neadow saw a need for water safety education for children. We live on an Island with nearly 125 miles of tidal shoreline, with lakes and ponds dotting the landscape, and we had a new pool at the YMCA. The time was right for the creation of the Third Grade Water Safety Program, an annual two-day event in the Y pool. Why third graders? “This is a wonderful age for learning,” Neadow explained, “third graders are old enough to understand the concepts put in front of them and still think learning is cool.”

Now each year third grade classes from Island schools come with teachers — and in the case of the Vineyard Haven School group, an interested member of the Tisbury Police Department — for two days of water safety instruction by YMCA lifeguards and swim instructors. The Times checked in with the YMCA’s last class of the school year.

YMCA aquatics instructor and international triathloner Jennifer Passafiume, just back from a running, biking, and swimming event in Spain, explained what happens on the first day of the water safety program: It’s about saving yourself in the water with or without a PFD — those personal flotation devices we used to call life jackets. “We go over what is and is not a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD device, how to pick out the right one for your size, how to put it on securely, and when to wear it,” Passafiume said.

Next comes what to do should you find yourself on your own in the absence of a PDF. At that point, the group practiced the basic swimming skills that keep one afloat and alive: students reviewed or learned floating on back and front, blowing bubbles, and treading water.

Day two was wet and lively, featuring simulated drowning (and saving) and capsizing boats. Fifty-two students from the Oak Bluffs School worked on reaching and throwing assists at one end of the pool. At the other end of the pool, students were taught to enter, exit, and safely move about a small boat, and then what to do when a boat capsizes, which it did on several occasions.

Starting down in the shallow end, lifeguard and YMCA Afterschool Program teacher Charlotte Hammond explained the importance of reaching and throwing assists when an individual is in trouble in the water. ”Throw, don’t go,” she advised. Why, she asked? Her well-informed audience answered, No need for two people to go under. The person in the water may be panicky and could pull you under as well.

They practiced, in teams of two, one student reaching a foam rubber noodle toward the person simulating drowning in the pool. Hammond cautioned the holder of the pool noodle: “Stay low, crouch, or even lie down,” so you don’t get pulled into the water by the person you’re trying to save.

Next a lifesaving ring was tossed to the person in the pool. “Avoid hitting the swimmer’s head when you aim,” Hammond cautioned. “All they need is a hand on the ring for you to pull them in.”

In the deep end of the pool, swim instructor Passafiume had charge of a rubber raft, through which she rotated the Oak Bluffs students three at a time. Cautioned on how to move about the boat safely, each student moved in a low-as-you-can-go crawl or crouch position and then got ready for the big event — capsize! And over they went, with remarkably good cheer and lack of discernible fear.

Passafiume confirmed that the number of children with swimming skills has increased due to the YMCA’s swimming lessons. “When we first started with this program, less than half of the kids knew how to swim. That percent is in the high 90s now,”

Standing on the pool deck during the exercises, Neadow watched her kids’ water safety vision come true: “I want this program to have a ripple effect in the community. To be talked about and to be practiced.”