Life-Saving Lessons


Local programs aim to cut child drowning statistics

Every day in the United States three children die from drowning. For 5 to 14 year olds, drowning is the second-leading cause of death.

While water recreation is a staple of summer fun, it is also important to keep the cold, hard facts in mind, remaining vigilant as good parents and neighbors in our communities as we lounge around pools, beaches and boats. Because shocking as it may seem, the reality is that 60 percent of drownings occur under adult supervision and 10 percent of victims drown within 10 feet of safety.

As the last full month before summer, it is fitting that May is National Water Safety Month, serving as a gateway, of sorts, to the waves of cooling-off activities to come.

In our community, organizations are actively working to minimize the risks of drownings by increasing awareness and offering training to those who need it the most.

Simple as it may be, the number one method for drowning prevention, according to the Virginia Department of Health, is teaching people how to swim.
Josh Gravette, Association Aquatics Director for YMCA of Central Virginia, explained that although the Y has been teaching people to swim for more than 100 years, it recently restructured its curriculum to be simpler and more heavily focused on life-saving skills. The program is called SAW—Safety Around Water.

“It is basically a simpler, more systematic approach to teaching swim lessons and water safety,” Gravette said. “It centers around a few key skills. [For example], a lot of this program focuses on floating.”

SAW trains beginners to be able to alternate swimming and floating to conserve energy (swim-float-swim), or to reach the edge quickly if they fall into a pool (jump-push-turn and grab), as well as exiting techniques, how to throw lifelines to others (reach-assist) and, by the end, ensures they can swim at least 15 yards.

Statistically, drownings disproportionately affect minorities. Socioeconomic status (a high percentage of minority children live in poverty—38 percent of Latino children six and under and almost 46 percent of black children in the same age range, according to The State of Working America) tends to correlate with access to pools, as well as the likelihood that one’s parents can swim.

The area YMCA is actively working to break this cycle through its Lynchburg Swim Initiative.

“This is definitely a great program, making a big impact in the community,” Gravette said.

Second graders who are on free or reduced lunch are picked up from school free of charge for eight one-hour swim lessons (using the SAW curriculum). They also are given a snack and a ride to their home. After completing the program, the children and their families are given a free three-month membership to the Y.

In each group, Gravette said, there are usually only a few who already know how to swim and that for many it is their first time in a pool.

“I can’t tell you how many kids have completed the lessons and said, ‘I’m going to teach my dad (or) mom how to swim,’” he said. “This allows the parents to see what their children have accomplished and the children to continue working on their skills.

A lot of these kids do not have the best home life so that gives them a sense of structure and helps them build that confidence, doing something they have never done.”

Over the summer, any children in Lynchburg’s Summer Learning Loss program will be given SAW swim lessons twice a week, in addition to mathematics and reading education, two meals and other activities. This will give another 200 students an opportunity to learn life-saving skills.

Additionally, the local Y has received a $10,500 grant to provide free swim lessons to 175 children this summer, which will allow the organization to partner with other local clubs and nonprofits to bring children in.

Miller Park Pool also takes steps to remove hurdles preventing children from learning about water safety. Lynchburg Parks & Recreation, which manages the pool, uses the American Red Cross for its swim curriculum, which Parks & Rec Athletics and Aquatics Director Trevor Freitas calls “the best of the best.” Children on any sort of government assistance can take lessons for half price.

All summer camps affiliated with the department have a Meet the Lifeguard Day where they learn about water safety in the Miller Center auditorium before taking a swim assessment. Each child’s skill level is shared with the parents.

Both the YMCA and Parks & Rec, with help from the Lynchburg Fire Department, have a Water Safety Day to educate children and parents. This includes training on how to properly secure a U.S. Coast Guard life jacket, reaching assist and more.

As a community resource, Freitas believes Miller Park Pool is strategically located near many areas where children might not otherwise have access to a pool.

“I believe Miller Park Pool is an awesome resource for everyone in the community in the summer,” Freitas said.

The pool also goes above and beyond in its water safety, ensuring it has the best lifeguards possible. They spend two hours each Saturday practicing a skill, working on team building and fitness, and swimming 200-300 meters.

Freitas noted that many of the lifeguards learned to swim at the pool and are now able to serve as role models to their peers. There is even a junior lifeguards program to train children interested who are not old enough (age 15) to become a lifeguard yet.

“A number of lifeguards who used to be kids that just came to the pool have now developed relationships and skills and are now earning money and are able to be positive influences on kids in similar situations that they were in,” Freitas said.

One lifeguard at Miller Park Pool was once a child who could not swim. He now has two saves, one of which was a serious, life-threatening situation, in the very pool in which he learned to swim.

Gravette strongly recommends that pools conduct swim testing. As a parting piece of advice, he reiterated that 60 percent of child drownings occur under adult supervision, and noted that awareness is a key component to water safety. He says it can be easy for parents to get distracted—especially by their smartphones. And wants parents to know that even children who can swim can be injured or be at risk of drowning.

“Anything can happen in the water.”

For more information on local water safety programming, visit:


About Author

Drew Menard is a professional writer living in Central Virginia with his wife and four active boys. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's in strategic communication, publishing his thesis on the emergent trend of transmedia storytelling. Drew is an award-winning columnist who has written extensively for magazines, newspapers, and digital publications. His creative projects also include developing screenplays and novels. Drew's first book, "Congo Sole" (Morgan James Publishing, 2019), tells the inspiring true story of a war refugee turned humanitarian.

Comments are closed.