Memorial Day marks the opening of many pools and lakes, and water safety advocates are urging Missourians to keep themselves and their children safe from drowning this season.
Swim lessons can keep many people safe, but knowing how to swim is only one part of drowning prevention, said aid Karen Cohn, founder of the Zac Foundation, a water safety organization.
It’s not enough to read by the pool, Cohn said. Adults need to pay attention when children are in the water. She recommends having a designated “water watcher.”
“We assume that people know about water safety,” Cohn said. “We assume it’s common sense, but it's not.”
Cohn founded the Zac Foundation in 2008 after her young son Zachary got caught in a pool drain and died. The organization teams up with Boys & Girls Clubs, including the St. Louis chapter, to offer swim lessons and safety courses called Zac Camps.
People also should never swim alone, should respect fences and barriers, and be careful around drains and filters. Long hair and loose clothing can get caught in drains, she said.
Nearly 60 people in Missouri drowned in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. According to the state health department, the majority of Missourians who drowned that year were males and under the age of 24. Most drownings occur in open water such as lakes and ponds.
Drowning disproportionately affects younger people and people of color, said Flint Fowler, the president of the St. Louis Boys & Girls Club. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than five times as many black children age 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools than white children.
That’s because black children are less likely to grow up around pools or lakes and often have not taken swimming lessons or water safety classes, he said.
Swimming lessons are only offered to people that seek them out.
“We tend to look at the people who come in the door to swim and to participate in water activities, but there’s not a concerted effort to reach out to those who don’t necessarily pursue water activities on a regular basis,” Fowler said.
He thinks fewer people would drown if public schools taught water safety classes and more nonprofits held low-cost or free swim lessons, he said.
Cohn also thinks public schools are a logical fit for water safety education.
“When you’re in schools, you’re reaching everyone,” Cohn said.
Several city administrators and nonprofit leaders, including Flint and Cohn, met in late May at the first meeting of a drowning-prevention task force sponsored by the Zac Foundation, Flint said. They discussed barriers that prevent people from getting swim lessons, such as transportation.
The task force plans to take inventory of where pools are located in the region, discuss introducing swim curriculum in the classroom and consider expanding some of the swim programming the Zac Foundation and Red Cross are offering in the area.
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