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by Daniel Paulling

April 4, 2018

Pastor Creates ALTS Program to Help Heal His Congregation

Rob Bruendl immediately knew what he should do when he received from U.S. Masters Swimming an email soliciting applications for grants for adult learn-to-swim programs.

The pastor’s congregation of about 175 people at Trinity United Methodist Church in Kearns, Utah, was reeling after the loss of Penoni Mounga at 31 in June 2016. Mounga—“Noni” to those who knew him and his ever-present smile—had drowned at a church outing at a local reservoir while swimming with others just a few weeks earlier.

“Noni was one of the most lovable people you’d ever want to meet,” Bruendl says. “He was the leader of our [youth] group. He touched so many youth and young adults’ lives. He loved what he did. We need to get people learning how to swim, so this kind of thing doesn’t happen.”

Bruendl decided to apply for a grant, which he received from the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation for 2017, and has taught about 15 members of his congregation how to swim.

His experience led to an invitation to speak at the National Drowning Prevention Alliance’s educational conference in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday morning. Bruendl, who plans to continue teaching his congregation and then other people in the Salt Lake City area how to swim, used his platform to promote water safety.

His panel Wednesday made a big impression on attendees.

“People who were not in the room are going to wish that they were in the room to hear his story,” says Mary Ann Downing, a certified adult learn-to-swim instructor who has also served on the board of the NDPA. “To see Pastor Rob and just feel the emotions as he tells the story of how Noni drowned and what his congregation is doing to heal, it’s an amazing story. It will touch people’s hearts and make them want to take action.”

What inspired Bruendl to take action was his desire for his congregation to make the most of the tragedy. Yes, they lost a beloved friend and youth group leader. But he wanted them to use Mounga’s death as a reason for them to learn how to swim and become water safe.

Bruendl, who swims for the Trinity United Methodist Church club, which was established to facilitate the “Swim for Noni” program, taught swim lessons to children in his teens and 20s. Teaching adults has been a transition for him.

“Actually, it’s been different than I thought but easier than I thought at the same time,” the 61-year-old says. “You have to get past all the inbred-for-many-years fears of adults that kids don’t have. So, to get through and realize that these are adults with real fears and real anxiety, you’re going to have to figure out what that means in your teaching.

“It revived my love for teaching people to swim. It also placed me in a position of talking to my youth and young adults on a one-on-one basis that I hadn’t realized I was missing. It’s been a true treasure because it’s made me a better pastor.”

Adrianne Vaioleti has gone through her pastor’s class, which she describes as an eye-opening experience. She considered herself an advanced swimmer before learning how much she needed to learn. One of the biggest things she took away was the importance of not panicking in the water.

Vaioleti points to another congregation member to show how much impact Bruendl’s lessons have provided. The fellow student, she says, lacked confidence when jumping into the water around the time of Noni’s death but after taking Bruendl’s class was more comfortable and taught her daughter, nieces, and nephews the things she had learned.

“After doing it and graduating from it, I think it’s a really good idea for everyone to learn how to swim,” says Sione, Adrianne’s husband, who also took the class. “When summertime comes around, things that pop into mind are, ‘Let’s go swimming, let’s go somewhere where it’s cool and hang out.’ It’s fun when everything goes well. I think it’s much needed for communities to all learn how to swim, to try and prevent anything like this from happening again.”

Bruendl recalls two young students shaking in fear as they entered the water. Seven lessons later, he says, they passed the class and were celebrating.

It’s moments like these that he’s been volunteering his time for.

“It’s been heartwarming, and it’s been a recovery for our church in the midst of the crisis,” Bruendl says. “It’s been pretty amazing, the results.”


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • ALTS
  • Swimming Saves Lives Foundation