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March 28, 2007

They danced, sang and toured fire engines but there was a serious message behind the fun activities nearly 1,300 Southeast Valley first-graders participated in Tuesday during a water safety program at Mesa Community College.

Firefighters, Phoenix Children's Hospital staff and even four-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Dara Torres reinforced the message that children need to know how to stay safe around water, and watch out for their friends and siblings.

The children soaked up the lessons with smiles and laughs, and many said they knew what to do to avoid drowning.

"If you go out (without) an adult, you could drown or get hurt," said Devan Mooney, 7, of Kyrene de la Colina Elementary in Ahwatukee Foothills. "You should always have an adult with you."

Water Watchers at Phoenix Children's Hospital organized the session, during which children watched children and adults swim in a pool and when prompted by Torres sang a duck song about learning to swim.

Children learned the ABCs of water safety: Adult supervision, Barriers such as fences, and Classes in CPR and swimming. They also learned not to jump in to save a friend, but rather to lie flat and extend a flotation device to them, to call 911 and to find an adult for help.

Fire departments from all over the Valley participated.

Numerous fire engines and ambulances lined part of the campus, as well as silhouettes of children who had drowned or nearly drowned. Children's shoes sat underneath the silhouettes.

"This is our commitment to preventing child drowning," said Tiffaney Isaacson, water safety coordinator at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "It takes a whole community."

Ahwatukee resident Carol Achs, a dean at the college, knows personally why the lessons are important. Achs' grandson, Weston Letter, drowned at age 3 in a pool at his family's home in Gilbert in 1998. The pool was fenced on all but one side and he quickly slipped away from adult supervision for only a few minutes, Achs said.

The tragedy inspired Achs and her daughter, Druann Letter, who is Weston's mother, to team up with Mesa Community College administrators and the fire science program director to create a water safety program.

"We can't just forget him (Weston) and we can't let it be negative all the time," Achs said. "We just try to celebrate his life and let others know what happened."

Water Watchers grew as a non-profit organization out of that through Mesa Community College and now is part of the children's hospital, Achs said. Letter, a teacher Kyrene del Cielo Elementary School in Chandler, said some of her fellow teachers, Achs and others wrote a water safety curriculum, which Valley teachers have been using to educate their students.

Gilbert's Patterson Elementary student Brenden Evensen, 7, said the session was "pretty cool" and he learned "never go near the pool when grown-ups are not watching."

Webster Elementary first-grader Jonathon Wright, 7, of Mesa, said he liked the program, too, as his dad, Marvin, watched.

"They told me how to swim," Jonathon said. "You have to be calm."

Patterson first-grade teacher Dolores Spradlin said she thinks water safety should be taught all the time.

"It's been really great," Spradlin said. "This program teaches more than anything else ... the adult is the most important factor."

Child water safety tips

Ten children 12 or younger died in the Valley from water-related incidents in 2006. Jan. 1 through March 22 this year, two children 12 and younger died in water-related incidents in the Valley.

  • Make sure there is a four-sided fence surrounding your pool.
  • Make sure your gate has a childproof lock.
  • Don't allow children to climb on the pool fence.
  • Teach children to stay away from water when an adult is not watching them.
  • If someone falls into a pool yell for help, throw something that floats and call 911.

  • Children's Safety Zone as reported by fire departments and Phoenix Children's Hospital
    Reproduced with permission from:
    The Arizona Republic
    By Colleen Sparks
    Copyright 2007 Arizona Republic

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