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Local kids learn the ABCs of water safety

March 25, 2009

Arizona has one of the highest child-drowning rates in the country. Last year alone, 16 children drowned in Maricopa County, and since 2000, more than 100 children have lost their lives in buckets, tubs and backyard swimming pools.

On Tuesday, 1,200 first-graders from Phoenix and the southeast Valley came together to learn a different kind of ABCs in the 10th annual Water Safety Day at Mesa Community College.

Aided by a swim show, a firefighter clown, a music program and other interactive activities, they learned that A is for adult supervision, B is for barriers like fences and door locks to restrict access to water, and C is for classes such as swim lessons for children and CPR training for adults.

"The clown said you have to do the ABCs before you go swimming," said 6-year-old Sophia Mitchell. Sophia attends Kyrene del Cielo in Chandler, where her mom, Debbie, is a first-grade teacher. Debbie Mitchell is one of dozens of teachers across the Valley who teach six days' worth of curriculum for drowning prevention, Water Watchers, established at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

"We talk about it at home and it's wonderful, I think, that we use it in the classroom. Kids think of water as a pool or the ocean, but we talk about buckets being unsafe for small children, and the bathtub. We give kids a pre-test before we teach it, and a lot of them think those things aren't of any danger," she said.

Water Watchers was established in memory of 3-year-old Weston Letter of Gilbert, who drowned in the family pool in 1998. Weston knew how to swim, was unafraid of the water and there was a barrier around the pool, but it was not completely contained.

"I would have never thought that our son would have been the one who drowned." said his mother, Druann Letter, also a first-grade teacher at Kyrene del Cielo. "We thought we did everything, and we didn't: We didn't watch him with eye-to-eye contact."

Letter said education for water safety was not available then. "I remember 'stop, drop and roll' but I don't remember anything for water safety," she said. So she came up with the water safety ABCs with her family.

"When you look at the drowning rate per 100,000 children during the last 20 years in the Valley, you'll see that we were really high in the late '80s to the early '90s," said Tiffaney Isaacson, water-safety coordinator at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Campaigns and barrier ordinances in cities (Gilbert and Tempe are the only two Valley cities that don't have strict pool-safety ordinances in place) helped bring the numbers down, Isaacson said.

Even so, Phoenix has had 75 child drownings since 2000; Mesa has had 24; Gilbert has had seven; Chandler has had four; and Tempe has had two. Even though it's not yet pool season this year, Avondale has already reported the Valley's first child fatality of 2009.

Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona, established 20 years ago, unites people from Maricopa County's fire departments, the county, pool and fence-building companies, hospitals and parents who discuss ways to lower the number of drownings. The coalition presents events around April 1, known as April Pools Day, to its members.

"We're totally supportive of this event and stay in a very visible way to let people know that it's still an issue out there," said John Harrington, coalition board member and CEO of Banner Heart Hospital in Mesa. A founding member of the coalition, Harrington's son Rex drowned in his backyard pool in Phoenix in 1986.

"If there's a message that I continually give, it's that it can happen to anybody," he said. "I didn't think it would happen to me. It always happens to a neighbor or somebody in the paper. And it really can happen to anybody."


Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Srianthi Perera
©Copyright 2009 Arizona Republic

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