Water safety

IRON MOUNTAIN – The Northern Lights YMCA Dickinson Center in Iron Mountain is helping

area third graders learn swimming and water safety skills before school is out for the summer. With a $4,625 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and the Dickinson Area Community Foundation, the YMCA has been able to offer free lessons to every third-grade student in Dickinson County.

Six area schools are participating in the program, which started April 18 and lasts for five weeks, said John Leech, the center’s aquatics director.

“The focus is general swimming safety, with each student practicing safety strokes and resting strokes. We are also focusing on safety around water,” Leech said.

The third-graders, who usually range in age from 8 to 10, are being introduced as well to boat safety, lifejacket fit, proper water attire and sun and heat safety.

With drowning ranking among the leading causes of pediatric deaths in the U.S., the American Academy of Pediatrics advises every child older than 5 years should have swimming lessons, Leech noted.

“And the timing is right – before the start of the summer outdoor recreation season,” said Jonathan Ringel, director of the Dickinson Center. “The health and safety of our local youth is too valuable, with the amount of natural water bodies found in our community.”

By the end of the program, Leech said they expect to have taught 221 students from Woodland Elementary School in Kingsford, North Elementary School in Iron Mountain, Norway Elementary School, Bishop Baraga Catholic School in Iron Mountain, Holy Spirit Catholic School in Norway and North Dickinson Elementary School in Felch.

About 30 percent of the students never had lessons before, Leech said, and 3 percent have never swam or been in a body of water.

“Some kids say they know how to swim under water, but they don’t know how to actually swim on the surface of the water,” he said. At the other end of the spectrum are students who have been swimming competitively for a few years.

The wide range of experiences creates a challenge in finding what is best for everyone, he said.

“There are a few that are terrified of the water and we allow those kids to get comfortable and work with them more slowly – or even on a one-on-one basis. The biggest thing we are trying to get across is that everyone can swim and everyone can have fun around the water. But being safe and knowing what you can and cannot do is very important,” Leech said.

The students receive five 40-minute swimming lessons. Third graders were selected because at that age they have both the mental and physical strength to learn in a large group, Leech said.

“They are old enough to understand the concepts that we are trying to teach and have already had or have been exposed to water in some way, shape or form. But they are also young enough that even if they have had a previous negative exposure to water, we can catch that and try to get that out of their system. A fear of drowning can be a crippling experience if not caught early enough,” Leech said.

Even the kids that haven’t previously been exposed to the water have had a great experience so far, Leech said, and do a good job of getting in and learning new things.

“I have to give it to the teachers and students – it’s really neat to see someone try a skill for the first time and have their teacher and peers cheering for them and clapping. As of right now, we haven’t had anyone say that they are not coming back to the next lesson,” he said.

The kids that have been hesitant will watch their friends doing a lesson and will get in the water with them for the next lesson, Leech said.

Leech has taught swimming for 10 years at different YMCAs, at aquatic centers in metro Detroit, and during college at Lake Superior State University. He has been aquatics director at this YMCA for just past a year.

Although this is a new program for the Dickinson Center and Leech, it has been done at other YMCAs.

“I’ve worked with swim teams and lessons for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to do something this big – more than 200 swim lessons in six weeks. It’s a blast – every day is a new adventure. I’m excited to see this program through and hope we will be able to get more in next year,” he said.