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June 5, 1999

John Van Der Werf knows only too well that water accidents can strike even the safest of families.

Van Der Werf found out the hard way.

On a January morning 18 years ago, Van Der Werf was taking down Christmas lights on the front of his house in Tempe's Lakes neighborhood. His wife, Linda, was busy inside. Their 2-year-old son, Chuckie, was trying out his new tricycle.

"He was riding his tricycle, and I turned around, and I couldn't see the tricycle," Van Der Werf said.

After a few minutes of frantic searching that seemed more like an hour, the Van Der Werfs found their 2-year-old, face down in a pond some 150 yards down the street. Presumably, he'd gone down to the water to play with the ducks.

When Van Der Werf found him, Chuckie was no longer breathing. As the Van Der Werfs watched helplessly, a nurse who lived nearby administered CPR. It saved Chuckie's life but not before his brain was damaged.

Chuckie Van Der Werf, now 20, is still unable to speak, move or eat, and is totally dependent on round-the-clock nursing.

Although there is nothing Van Der Werf can do to help his son, the father is working to prevent similar tragedies.

"I know how bad it is and how much it affects people," Van Der Werf said. "This affects literally hundreds of people, and I just don't want it to happen again."

That's why Van Der Werf has gotten together with the Tempe YMCA to create a water safety program for children ages 1 to 4 and their parents.

Drowning in backyard pools, lakes, bathtubs or even 5-gallon buckets of water is the second-leading cause of death for preschoolers after automobile accidents, he said, with 2- and 3-year-olds the most frequent drowning victims,

"You don't even need to have a pool," Van Der Werf said. "We didn't live on the lake. We lived 150 yards away from it."

The Tempe YMCA at 7070 S. Rural Road modified the YMCA's national Splash program to focus on children ages 1-4, rather than on school-age kids, after former board member Van Der Werf matched the agency's $10,000 donation for the program.

John Yungberg, executive director of the Tempe YMCA, said 100 families have signed up for the program, which will run throughout the rest of the year. The goal is for 350 families to get involved.

"One of my missions is to let folks know, because we could potentially be preventing either a drowning or a near drowning with the class, and the education that's being offered," Yungberg said.

The Splash program consists of classroom instruction and practical, in-the-pool learning. Kids learn to be comfortable enough in the water to be able to use their heads in an emergency, whether they've accidentally fallen into water or they need to help another child, or even an adult, said Nancy Winchip, director of operations at the Tempe YMCA.

The five-day program also teaches parents and children how to use beach balls and other items that can be used for floatation in emergencies, while stressing the need for parents to keep a constant eye on their kids anywhere around water.

Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is the mandatory CPR instruction, which Winchip says can be the difference between life and death or surviving a near drowning unscathed or with extensive brain damage.

"We really felt that if a problem did happen, that if you did know how to react, you could save the child's life right there," rather than risking possible harm while waiting for paramedics to arrive, she said.

Another reason for targeting younger children for the program is that they are less likely to have developed fears or phobias about water that can make learning more difficult, Winchip said.

Rob and Rebecca Rawnsely, whose 3-year-old son, Jacob, graduated from the program recently, said they picked up a lot of useful information that they can use, despite the fact that they don't have a pool at their Tempe home.

"Sometimes you don't think about all the water exposure that they have, even if you don't have a pool," Rebecca said. "We don't have one, but we occasionally are places where they are."

Her husband added, "We learned about hazards in the back yard, around backyard swimming pools, and we went over stuff at water parks and boat safety."

Joshua Buschel, one of the program instructors, said that although many of the children don't seem to pay very close attention to his classroom lectures, involving parents in the program ensures that much of the information will seep through.

"They're just kids, and they need to have fun to actually learn anything right now," Buschel said. "The way it pays off is in the parents' participation. They're always going to retain a little bit of knowledge, and the folks are what's really going to help. The parents are where the education comes in."

Van Der Werf said he applauds other efforts by local fire and police departments, media outlets and others to reduce child drownings, but insists that more must be done, as long as any children are losing their lives to water.

If his and the Tempe YMCA's combined investment of $20,000 can save even one child's life, it will be "a hell of an investment," said Van Der Werf, pointing out that the program is just getting started.

"We don't believe that after a child takes this course that they'll be waterproof. We consider this an ongoing project, and we hope it's successful, and the more successful it is, the more we'll expand it."

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Byline: By Gregor McGavin, Special for The Republic
©Copyright 1999 Arizona Republic

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