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April 25, 2000

Druann Letter is on a public crusade inspired by a personal tragedy.

Nearly two years ago, she was working inside her home, and her husband, a Tempe firefighter, was in the garage fixing his car. For only a moment, they lost sight of their 3-year-old son as he played nearby, next to the family's backyard swimming pool.

''You don't hear a child drown - they call it the silent death,'' Letter said. ''We were pretty cautious parents. We just didn't think enough that it could happen to us.''

Weston Thomas Letter died on May 31, 1998. On Wednesday, Mesa Community College's first Water Safety Day, which Druann Letter was instrumental in organizing, will be held in his memory.

Seminars and activities focusing on water safety will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the college, 1833 W. Southern Ave. Parents are encouraged to bring their children to tour firetrucks and hear firefighters dressed as clowns talk about water rules. For adults, there will be workshops on pool safety, emergency medical advice and safeguarding the home and pool.

Kyrene del Cielo Elementary School Principal Beth Hill decided to make the event a schoolwide field trip.

''We have Fire Awareness Week, but we don't have anything about water,'' Hill said. ''We want to give the message to all schools that water safety needs to happen. It's not in the curriculum.''

Letter teaches part time at Hill's school, which is where Weston attended preschool.

Teachers at the Chandler school include Weston's death in water safety lessons and held a schoolwide water safety poster competition to create a school T-shirt. Another teacher came up with the slogan ''Halt, get an adult'' for children to remember if they ever discover a sibling or friend drowning.

A school student survey found that 99 percent of them remembered the slogan ''Stop, Drop and Roll'' for fire, but almost half of them mistakenly said they would jump in to save a friend drowning in a pool.

''They think they're invincible,'' Hill said. ''Children are givers and the first thing they would want to do is to jump in and save their friend.''

Letter said formalized water safety lessons in Valley schools could do a lot to prevent the tragedies, and Mesa Community College plans to take Wednesday's activities further by creating booklets to aid schools in teaching such lessons.

In 1998, 40 children drowned across the state, according to a report by the state's Child Fatality Review Board. Thirty-five of those cases were found to have been preventable, with improper pool fencing cited as the major contributing factor.

Letter said her best advice to parents would be to have more than one safety strategy. Don't rely solely on a pool fence, self-latching gate or motion sensor, she said, but teach children how to swim and to designate a ''water watcher'' when other kids are in the water. Parents should also keep a telephone, leaf net and life preserver nearby.

Weston had two years of swimming lessons and would have started his third year a day after his death, Letter said.

After Weston's death, Letter enrolled her twin daughters in survival swimming lessons, which teach infants as young as 6 months to roll onto their backs and float when they fall in the water.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Byline: By Heather Romero, The Arizona Republic
©Copyright 2000 Arizona Republic

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