SunUte Community Center leads way in swimming safety
It started as a simple request for swim lessons for local students by a school superintendent.
More than 17 years later, SunUte Community Center in Ignacio has provided 1,000-plus swim lessons every year to children in two school districts and the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy. That means that 16,000 youth have learned to swim at 102,000 lessons in Ignacio, an impressive statistic for a small town adjoining the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
SunUte Community Center was founded by the tribe in 2001 to promote health and wellness for tribal members and other residents of Southwest Colorado. In April, three directors at SunUte made a presentation at the National Drowning Prevention Alliance annual meeting in New Orleans, explaining how they partner with local school districts to get kids into their pool for swim lessons, and how that has served the local Native American population, as well. Representing the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the three were the first employees of a Native American nation to make a presentation at this conference.
Emphasizing Importance of Swimming Lessons
“We want to get all kids in for swim lessons,” said Abel Velasquez, the fitness director at SunUte. That is important not just for the many area children who use SunUte’s pool, but also rural kids who play and swim in the area’s reservoirs, ditches, rivers and ponds. Nationally, more children and teens drown in open water than in swimming pools.
Because formal swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent, local kids coming to SunUte for lessons is critical, explained Tim Velasquez, the aquatics director at SunUte.
Children in the Ignacio School District attend swim lessons for two weeks a year in the first, third and fifth grades, while Bayfield students attend in the second, fourth and sixth grades.
The lessons require a joint commitment from both SunUte, which provides the schools with the lessons at a reduced cost, and the school districts, which pay for the lessons and bus the students to the SunUte pool.
The swim lessons started after a Bayfield girl was submerged in a ditch and nearly drowned, then lived the rest of her life with extensive brain damage. Don Magill, who was the superintendent at the time at Bayfield School District, approached SunUte staff about having kids from public schools come to the center for swim lessons. Children in the tribal Montessori Academy already were taking swim lessons there. Robin Duffy-Wirth, who is now the center’s director, agreed it was a good idea, but said just a week or two of lessons wouldn’t provide much time for each child, so they agreed that lessons every other year would work. Then Ignacio schools joined the program, as well.
Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental deaths by children from one to four years old, explained Abel Velasquez. In addition to the school programs, SunUte provides summer swim lessons at a low cost for any family that registers.
SunUte Community Center Open to All
While swim lessons are the best way to prevent drowning, SunUte staff know they also have to reach children and families of toddlers who are just starting to swim. In addition to offering toddler-parent water classes, they have joined the Josh the Otter water safety and awareness project. Dressed in a giant otter costume, staff members have taught water safety to more than 400 children at local libraries and kindergarten classes. Each child receives a copy of the Josh the Otter book, a coloring book on water safety, a sticker and a water safety pledge card to sign. This project is supported by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Pine River Centennial Rotary Club and Ignacio School District. The message Josh teaches children is that they shouldn’t enter the water unless an adult is present and paying attention.
During the presentation at the conference in New Orleans, the three presented some sobering statistics regarding drowning.
- Drowning is more prevalent among children from one to four years old than any other age group.
- In the U.S., there are approximately 10 fatal drownings per day.
- Between 2005 and 2014, there was an average of more than 3,500 unintentional drownings per year.
- Drowning affects American Indian and African American children at higher rates than white children, according to their research.
Factors that increase drowning risk include poor swimming ability, lack of supervision, failure to wear personal flotation devices, and the absence of barriers, or inadequate barriers, around pools and open water.
Parents also have to realize that a drowning can take place far more quickly than they imagine. The directors presented the following timelines at the conference:
- Cross a room for a towel (10 seconds.) A child can become submerged.
- Answer the phone (two minutes.) A child can lose consciousness.
- Check social media or emails (two to four minutes.) A child submerged in a tub or pool can sustain permanent brain damage.
Swimming Skills Saves Lives
The goal of the swim lessons is to teach children about water safety; increase their comfort in, on and around water; and increase their swimming abilities so they can enjoy water activities safely. All children taking swim lessons at SunUte sign a pledge to never swim alone, to never play near drains or suction fittings, to always dive feet first, and to always obey the pool rules.
There have been some unexpected outcomes as well, explained Tim Velasquez, the aquatics director. That included local children building their own confidence as they become comfortable in the water. They learn to take calculated risks, and build their swimming skills on their own terms. Teaching parents that they need to be within arm’s reach of younger children is critical, as well.
During parties at the recreation center, in addition to having the lifeguards on duty, staff give an adult a lanyard and tell them their job is to keep their eye on the children in their party at all times.
The expense and time the center has devoted to swimming safety means that a generation of kids in Eastern La Plata County have learned to swim and have fun in the water at the local recreation center.
“If we’ve prevented even one drowning death, it’s been worth it,” Duffy-Wirth said. “Safety is the absolute number-one thing in our facility.”
Swim lessons at SunUte will start this summer. Information about schedules and registration will be online at www.sunute.com or by calling (970) 563-0214.