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Philanthropist Helps First Graders Learn to Swim

Shasta County offers visitors and residents countless opportunities for water-related fun. But for those who can’t swim, our beautiful waterways and aquatic centers sometimes present life-threatening hazards, especially to young children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says three children die from drowning every day, making drowning the second leading cause of accidental death for kids under 14. Compounding that statistic is the fact that the rates of accidental death by drowning are greater in low-income communities with high access to water.

When a child drowned in Shasta Lake in 2001 the Shasta Family YMCA introduced its First Grade Learn to Swim program, which had launched nationwide by the YMCA of the USA.

After the drowning, a $5,000 grant funded swimming lessons for 115 students, and included instructors, pool usage, and program materials. The Redding School District covered transportation costs for program participants. The grant allowed Cypress, Sycamore and Juniper elementary schools – with the highest percentage of families who couldn’t afford to send their children to swim lessons outside the school day – to participate in the swimming program.

Other area schools got involved, too. The Redding School District and the districts it partnered with – including French Gulch-Whiskeytown, Shasta Union Elementary, and Igo-Ono-Platina Union – collaborated with the YMCA to provide two weeks of swim lessons for every first grade student. To date, the program has served more than 5,000 children locally. Classes are 40-50 minutes long and take place over four days in one week.

Steve Woodrum.

First, just one school district was involved, and shortly the program expanded to three schools, said Steve Woodrum, a Redding philanthropist, and a big supporter of the YMCA’s swimming program.

Since the original grant funding, school districts have helped support the program’s continuation. But when the recession hit, things got tough. The community, however, stepped up to help keep Learn to Swim afloat, with grants provided by such north state groups as Kool April Nites, Sierra Pacific Industries Foundation, the Redwoods Foundation Group, and the Redding Rancheria Community Fund, which is managed out of the Shasta Regional Community Foundation.

Three years ago the program again faced a shortfall. Enter Woodrum, who had expressed a desire to help support aquatics at the Y. When he learned about the Learn to Swim program, he was hooked,  and donated $4,000 to support Learn to Swim for the Enterprise School District’s elementary schools.

It costs around $50 per child to go through the program. To leverage his funding, Woodrum delivered a challenge to the Enterprise School District: He would put up $2,500 if they would match it. This $5,000 would enable Rother and Alta Mesa elementary schools and its combined 150 first graders to participate, too. The school district accepted the challenge, and for the past two years, Enterprise School District students have participated in Learn to Swim.

But Woodrum had a bigger vision for more expansion, this time to Shasta Lake City, an area with a low-income population and high accessibility to water – big predictors to drowning rates.

The Shasta Lake City Council then donated $5,000, which allowed Gateway School District, which borders Redding and Shasta Lake City, to have their students participate in the Learn to Swim program, too.

For Woodrum, it was important to include Shasta Lake City.

“There are a lot of poor kids up there,” he said, “kids who normally wouldn’t have a chance to get into a swimming pool.”

Woodrum said that the Learn to Swim program isn’t “your typical bunch of swimming lessons” — and said that when the students complete the program, although they may not necessarily be excellent swimmers, they will have learned how to not drown.

“They’ll get used to the water, learn how to float, (and) to do simple swimming strokes to get back to shore,” Woodrum said.

Statistically, approximately 80-percent of drownings happen within grabbing distance of a wall, and/or six feet of a wall and with adult supervision. So having young kids know how to help themselves in the water is crucial.

Children who take the course are evaluated to see how they’ve progressed. Skills begin with basics, such as how to submerge in water and calmly go under water, all the way up to jumping in the pool, pushing off the bottom, turning around, grabbing the pool wall and exiting the pool. Teaching kids how to float on their backs is an extra important life-saving skill, especially if the child is in the water for a long period of time.

The kids learn both in and outside the water. Skill levels, between when the kids start and when they finish, can improve dramatically.

Dale Porter, Assistant Superintendent of the Enterprise Elementary School District, said the swimming lessons are especially important because of myriad societal challenges.

“We fight a culture of childhood obesity, and we want to expose them to something other than TV and video games,” he said. “Swimming is a life-long skill.”

When it comes to his district’s participation, Porter would like to have all seven of district’s schools enrolled in the swim program.

Along with the Enterprise schools, the swim program is expanding to other area communities, such as a year-round presence in Cottonwood, where the Safety Around Water program will be offered this summer, along with swim lessons to all the kids in summer day camps and an open community swim.

Because of Woodrum’s generosity, the swim program has doubled in the past two years, from just over 200 children per year from five schools, to 420 children from nine schools, including a special day class. Since February alone, Woodrum’s contribution has helped increase the program’s enrollment another 50 percent.

Over the past three years, Woodrum has donated and leveraged $22,000 to the Learn to Swim program. Consequently, more than 300 children will learn to swim from seven schools in the Redding and Enterprise school districts, including new students from Buckeye Elementary and Shasta Lake City.

Porter said one of the greatest satisfactions is seeing the students’ level of improvement. Some of the same kids who start out fearful of the water end up enjoying themselves, and learn how to stay safe.

“They’re not be afraid of falling in, and they can get to the side of the pool,” he said.

He said teachers tell him the Learn to Swim program is not just a confidence-builder, but literally a life-saver. Because of these swimming programs, schoolkids in Shasta County are much safer around water, and they have fun in the process.