Safety first at swim lessons

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 4, 2013

BY David Vitrano

RESERVE – Around 150 children in St. John the Baptist Parish now know how to be safe in the water as the parish wrapped up its second year of free swim lessons sponsored by the American Red Cross and its Ashley Kelley Swim Program.
Last year’s inaugural program was cut short by Hurricane Isaac, but this year, despite a few days of rainy weather, participants walked away from the final day with certificates saying they had each completed the program.
The one-week program was aimed at beginning swimmers.
“We’re just trying to get them comfortable in the water,” said Red Cross instructor Ruth Alleman, adding, “Statistically, the population just doesn’t have access to swim lessons.”
This year, participant ages ranged from 4 to 17.
The program, available only in the metro New Orleans area, is named after 12-year-old Ashley Kelley, who drowned in Lake Pontchartrain.
“Her family created this foundation,” said Alleman. “They pay for people to become instructors, and in return they are committed to teach lessons in the community.”
The program saw five instructors return from last year.
One of this year’s returning instructors, Melynie Wright, said the benefits of the program are numerous.
“We’re not just teaching them to swim. We’re teaching them water safety,” she said. “Part of it is educating a child on the different ways they can assist in a rescue.
‘To see the transformation, to see the confidence level grow, it just opens up so much of a world for them,” she continued.
She also said the benefits do not just flow in one direction.
“It’s just an incredible thing when you give back to your community,” said Wright. “The best thing about it is when someone puts their trust in you,” she said. “It just touches my heart. That’s an incredible feeling.”
Parents, who were allowed in the pool area only on the final day, also noticed the growth in the children.
James Westbrook, father of two 6-year-olds who took the lessons, said, “I think it’s a great program for the parish. I noticed an improvement in confidence.”
Mother Tina Westbrook, however, noted, “I wish the lessons had been earlier, though.”
She may get her wish, as, according to Acting St. John Recreation Department Director Debra Poche, there is talk of moving the program next year to sometime in June so the children who take advantage of the lessons have time to practice what they learned before school starts and the public pools close.
Poche also said the parish is always looking for lifeguards, so those who are interested in being instructors next year should contact the department.
The parish may also have to consider another change next year, that is if the children have anything to say about it.
“They’re enjoying it,” said Alleman. “They’re asking for more days.”