Shannon O'Brien smiles as she watches kindergartners hold onto the side of the pool, laughing while they kick their feet freestyle in the water behind them.

By the numbers

40% of children report they are able to swim, but only 18 percent had ever taken a swim lesson from a certified instructor. (USA Swimming)

28% of Hispanic children and 26 percent of African-American children responded, “I taught myself.” (USA Swimming)

37% of Americans say they're not good swimmers and 13 percent say they can't swim at all. (American Red Cross)

85% of drowning deaths among children 5 and younger occur at a home, while 45 percent of fatalities among children ages 5 to 14 occur at a public pool. (

66% of drowning deaths occur between May and August, and most commonly on the weekends. (

A parent or caregiver claimed to be supervising the child in nearly nine out of 10 child drowning-related deaths. (

Recreational boating accidents caused nine drowning deaths among children 12 and younger in 2010; more than half of the children were not wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) or life jackets. (

Black children ages 5 to 14 have a drowning rate three times that of their white counterparts. (

Low-income children are at greater risk from non-swimming pool drownings. (

During 2005–09, an average of 3,880 people died from unintentional drowning (including boating incidents) annually in the United States. (CDC)

During 2005–09, an estimated 5,789 persons on average were treated annually in U.S. emergency departments for nonfatal drowning. (CDC)

Georgetown County Y-splash program teaches kids swimming, water safety

Folks in Georgetown County are also working to prevent drowning.

Through a partnership with Georgetown County School District, all second-graders in the district participate in Georgetown County YMCA's Y-Splash program.

The program was born out of tragedy.

Georgetown County is home to Sandy Island, one of the last inhabited islands in the state that has no link to the mainland. Sandwiched between the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers, it's home to about 100 residents who commute to and from the island by boat.

In February 2009, three people drowned when their 15-foot fiberglass boat capsized while crossing the 300 yards to the island.

None wore life jackets, authorities said.

“In the wake of that tragedy, (Y-Splash) was something that was implemented and will forever go on to prevent drownings,” said Amy Mitchell, membership and marketing director of the Georgetown County YMCA. “We want to help them better understand the safety that they need to take heed to when around the water.”

The program has taught about 750 second-graders every year since 2010-11.

In addition to learning swim basics, students learn how to put on life jackets, how to use a safety ring and what to do if they see someone in trouble.

“You can just see the happiness in their little faces,” she said. “For many, many of these children, this is their first experience in the water. And many of them live right by it.”

O'Brien, a retired schoolteacher, is director of Lowcountry Aquatic Project Swimming, which started providing swim lessons to kindergartners and first-graders this year in 14 Charleston County schools. The lessons are taught at four pools under the leadership of 20 trained instructors.

About 1,000 students who might not otherwise learn to swim will get lessons before school lets out for the summer.

“The goal is to get them used to the water, so if they were to fall in, they could paddle themselves to the side.”

In a Lowcountry dotted with and surrounded by water, drownings happen all too often.

Georgetown County YMCA started a program for all second-graders in the county's public schools in 2010, the year after three residents drowned while trying to cross from the mainland to Sandy Island, an inhabited island with no link to the mainland.

This month a 65-year-old Johns Island man fell into a pond while fishing and drowned. His relatives said he could not swim.

Startling statistics

Like many others, O'Brien, an avid swimmer from a family of swimmers, shudders every time she hears about a drowning. She wants people to enjoy swimming, not fear the water.

The statistics are startling:

84 drowning deaths in South Carolina in 2010, the most recent year statistics are available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drowning is the fourth-leading cause of death among children up to age 17 statewide, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said.

For every child who drowns, four more are hospitalized; for every hospitalization, four are treated solely in emergency rooms, DHEC said.

Nearly 70 percent of black children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have low or no swimming ability, compared with 40 percent of whites, a 2008 study by USA Swimming revealed.

Black children ages 5 to 14 are three times more likely to drown than white kids in the same age range, according to the CDC.

LAPS targets kids in schools with large concentrations of low-income families.

“The reason we are targeting these schools is due to the lack of access for them, the lack of transportation and those extra funds to pay for lessons,” O'Brien said. “That, and the fear. The fear is very real.”

A 2010 USA Swimming study found the main reason children don't learn to swim is “fear of drowning.”

Although lower income families — those whose children qualify for free or reduced lunch — often said they couldn't afford lessons, the research also showed that even if the lessons were free, many still wouldn't let their children swim. And that answer came from all races.

“Many parents have come to me and told me they don't know how to swim,” O'Brien said. “They're certainly nervous (about LAPS) at first, but once their kids come home and they see their enthusiasm, they are much more relaxed. Several have come and asked if we give adult swim lessons.”

Jane Harris, aquatics director at the Berkeley County Family YMCA in Moncks Corner, said fear also motivates parents to sign up their children for lessons. She sees that often in families who come from St. Stephen, Cross and Santee, who live on the shores of lakes Moultrie and Marion.

“So many of the parents never were taught to swim, and they want to make sure their children know how because they wouldn't know how to save them,” she said. “They see the water and freak, so they want the kids to learn so they can go out there and swim by themselves.”

Learning in school

While many area recreation departments offer swim lessons to paying customers, LAPS is currently the only swim program offered through Lowcountry schools.

O'Brien's brother, Orange Grove Elementary physical education teacher Michael Walsh, started a swim program at his school in 2009, funded by a $2,000 grant from the Logan Rutledge Children's Foundation. He now teaches the same curriculum as LAPS.

The foundation has raised more than $100,000 since 2001 through projects that include the annual Lowcountry Splash open-water swim. It has given money for water-safety programs in the school district for several years, but it went largely untapped, mostly because there were no programs to fund.

Foundation founder and president Mark Rutledge — now also CEO of LAPS — asked his friend O'Brien, who was elementary athletic liaison for the school district, to get involved.

She found the Columbia-based Swim Lessons University program, which focuses on teaching basic skills and is heavy on record-keeping, helping instructors track students' progress.

“It has a very succinct, progressive way of teaching skills that appealed to the teacher in me,” she said. “It stresses repetition, repetition, repetition.”

LAPS provides everything free — transportation to and from pools, swim instruction, and equipment, including suits when necessary. The students attend 30-minute classes twice weekly for four weeks.

O'Brien would like to see the program expand to every elementary school in the county.

Other schools and organizations, including Charleston County Park and Recreation, have plans to start using it, O'Brien said.

Officials in Dorchester and Berkeley counties said they hope to offer school-based lessons after new aquatics facilities are built in both counties.

In the meantime, leaders throughout the community continue to do what they can to raise awareness about water safety.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who tried to pass legislation in 2008 and 2010 calling for public schools to offer free swimming instruction, last year sponsored a resolution declaring May “Water Safety Awareness Month” and encouraged public schools to provide at least one hour of instruction on water safety during the month.

At the same time, Charleston County introduced another Swim Lessons University program, “Water Smart 101,” a classroom-based program that's taught in every elementary school.

“It is about preparing our children to be safe,” Superintendent Nancy McGinley said when the program was introduced.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or