GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Drowning remains the number one unintentional cause of death for U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.. It is the second leading cause for children ages 5 through 14. Wednesday, May 15th is International Water Safety Day

"The 7th annual celebration is a day to spread awareness of the ongoing drowning pandemic and to educate youth in becoming safer in and around water," according to SwimSwam.com.

In Grand Rapids, the Kroc Center has been committed to this cause for several years. It has partner with Grand Rapids Public Schools to provide free swim lessons to students. The swim safety program started 3 years ago, providing lessons to children at Brookside Elementary. Since then it has grown to add students at Buchanan, Burton and Dickinson.

"Of course, we are one of the biggest providers of American Red Cross Swim lessons in the state of Michigan. But, we are really part of this partnership we have developed with Grand Rapids Public Schools to give all of the second graders in four different school buildings a week of free swim lessons in the Spring," says Jon Shaner, marketing director.  "It is important because we know within Grand Rapids we have a lot of families who - whether it's because they are new to the area - may I not have been exposed to water. Or, they may not have had that training.

Grand Rapids Kroc Center Pool
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But, here in Michigan you are always close to a lake or other body of water so we want to make sure they have at least those basic skills. We are not going to get them to be Michael Phelps in a week, but it is about getting them safety knowledge to get them to know what to do in a water related emergency and to make them comfortable around water. We know fear is a big thing too."

Shaner says they evaluate the kids knowledge and skill level and then match them with the most appropriate level of instruction. But, they all begin with the basics.

"Things like getting in the water, how to put you face in the water and blow bubbles," says Shaner. "They learn those very basic things all the way up to knowing how to help a friend who may be in trouble in the water. We say reach or throw don't go - things like that, so they know what to do in an emergency."

The program provides one week of lessons at The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center on Division Avenue. After that, students are able to participate in a free six-week session of additional swim lessons.

"The level of improvement we see is just exceptional," said Shaner.

He says they would like to continue to have the program grow and eventually add more schools. In the meantime, he advises parents to be vigilant about water safety as swim season gets underway.

"Don't leave the kids outside where they could be around water or things like that. That is when the tragedies happen, when we are not paying attention or we are distracted," says Shaner. "We know parents are always running around doing a million things at once, but that precaution is really the key."

He also advises parents to look for similar swimming safety and water safety programs in their communities. In Grand Rapids the public pool season begins on June 3rd. Later that month, the Kroc Center will hold its annual "World's Largest Swim Lesson." 

The event is free for all ages. It will take place Thursday, June 20. People can register here.

The American Red Cross also offers swim safety tips on its website.

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