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  • ALTS
  • Swimming-Saves-Lives-Foundation
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by Holly Neumann

September 19, 2017

Fort Worth Masters Swimmers Find Mission in Drowning Prevention

The Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition served 356 students this past summer

In the summer of 2012, a life-saving idea came during a kick set.

The headlines in Fort Worth, Texas, had been harrowing. Several fatal drownings, including one of a Masters swimmer who had been swimming in a lake, had led recent newscasts, and the Masters swimmers on Fort Worth’s Team Ridglea were paying attention.

“When we kick, we talk,” says Team Ridglea swimmer Pam Cannell. They talked about how a preschooler had drowned while saving a friend. About how Texas led the nation in drownings, how USMS was launching the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, and about how they might help their community address its drowning problem.

Before long, Team Ridglea members were meeting with stakeholders from all over town, among them the city’s parks and recreation department, the local YMCA, the University of North Texas Health Science Center, the fire department, and folks from Texas Christian University’s swim team. It was September 2012, and an alliance to prevent drowning in Fort Worth was in action.

Cannell is now the executive director of what became the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition, one of 38 Swimming Saves Lives Foundation–supported programs in 2017. The program served 356 students this past summer, 44 of them adults. Since 2013, nearly 1,500 people have gone through the coalition’s classes.

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The coalition’s curriculum focuses on drowning-prevention skills such as back floating, treading water, and swimming to safety. In addition, parents learn water-safety awareness, and students are taught pool rules and receive a life vest at the completion of the program.

Multiple two-week sessions run in the evenings during the warm months, a time Cannell describes as all-encompassing. The rest of the year, Cannell says, “is not as intense, but it is ongoing.”

Cannell’s right-hand helper is fellow Team Ridglea member Julie Jackson, who designed the coalition’s curriculum, serves as the lead instructor, and sits on the coalition’s board of directors. She also trains scores of volunteer instructors.

The volunteer instructors come from both in and outside the swimming world. “Two Masters clubs, several triathlon groups, and youth swim teams. We pull from them a lot,” Cannell says.

But she also leans on some nontraditional sources, at least in the swimming sense.

“We have a wonderful partnership with the fire department. They recognize that what we’re doing is going to save them calls,” she says.

Also, service organizations have stepped up. “We love the Junior League!” Cannell says.

One of those Junior Leaguers, Magellan Taylor, a hospital child-life specialist, says she was grateful for the training provided by the coalition, and credits that preparation for making her volunteer experience so rewarding.

“I felt so equipped,” she says. “It’s because of the training we were getting. The language to use, how to interact with the kids. Even though I know how to do that in my job, it is different in the pool.”

Jackson gives instructors several ways to learn the material. There’s a volunteer training manual that outlines the steps in writing; a video series shows the skills in 2 to 3 minutes, one video for each of the eight days of instruction; and Jackson arrives 30 minutes prior to each session to educate and demonstrate ahead of class.

“No one has to do all three,” Cannell says. “You choose which way you learn best.”

During a two-week session, students are divided into groups with at least one instructor and one “water buddy” who assists. Multiple groups work concurrently, and there are two 30-minute classes each evening.

It’s a big commitment for a volunteer, which the coalition recognizes. Jackson says she is especially struck by the goodwill of all involved.

“This whole journey with drowning prevention,” she says, “it shows you how much people will give. The generosity of people. They are giving their time. They are getting in the water, and they might not always be comfortable, but they are doing it.”

Cannell says they do their best to make sure the volunteers are “happy while they are there.”

“We feed them,” she says. “That’s a huge effort on our part. We get food donated, and nonswimming volunteers can provide food.”

Volunteers are also thanked with a post-season volunteer-appreciation dinner. “We try to make it a fun and rewarding experience,” Cannell says.

It must be working. According to a coalition survey of its volunteers, 99.7 percent express a desire to volunteer again in the future.

That’s something Cannell sees as a large part of the coalition’s success. Volunteers become the “voice of the mission,” she says. The volunteers become equipped to talk about drowning in an informed way, so they can influence the people they encounter beyond the pool deck. “They become a ripple effect,” she says.

Taylor agrees. She recently found herself at work during rounds in the ICU, giving an impromptu lesson to colleagues about drowning dangers and statistics.

“The ripple effect,” Taylor says, “is powerful.”

Want to help other adults learn how to swim? You can become a certified ALTS instructor or donate to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, which gives grants to adult-swim-lesson providers. You can also learn more about how ALTS has impacted adults across the country.

Want to learn how to swim? Find an ALTS instructor in your area.