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'Swim Strong' program aims to teach kids life-saving swim techniques

As summer surges on throughout the Lowcountry, the warmer days seem to inherently draw the community closer to the water.

In response, Summerville Medical Center, the Summerville Family YMCA and other members of the community are partnering to launch "Swim Strong," a program that leaders are hopeful will bring some relief to the state's current staggering statistics surrounding pediatric drownings.

“The nasty number is that South Carolina ranks ninth in the entire United States for pediatric drownings, and I think it's just because ... we are so blessed that we are surrounded by water everywhere, between ponds in farms and creeks and oceans and lakes and everything,” said Doug Holtzman, pediatric ER medical director at Summerville Medical Center. “That's one of the benefits of being in South Carolina, is there are so many water activities. Unfortunately, that leads to lots of accidents.”

Although the program is still in its beginning phases, Kim Howell, vice president of community relations at the Summerville YMCA, says they have already hosted their first collection event outside of Summerville Medical Center's registration entrance and outside of Brighton Park Emergency. The organization collected child-sized life jackets, floaties, kickboards and noodles, which they will later distribute to children across the county throughout the duration of the Swim Strong program.

“A lot of the kids that we will be helping with these lessons may not have the funds to also purchase some of these items that are needed, so we are doing these collection events,” Howell said.

But that is just the start of the plan for the program, which is expected to officially launch in time for next summer. Howell explained the YMCA and medical center officials plan to purchase a portable pool for the program. This would allow the pool to be taken out into the more rural areas of Dorchester and Berkeley counties for swim lessons.

“We all very much believe in wanting to prevent these drownings with the youth in our county,” Howell said. “There are so many kids in rural parts of our town and county that don't have access to a pool. But they may go to a party or they may go on vacation, and they may encounter a pond or something like that, and they may still experience those tragedies. We would like to be able to prevent that.”

The portable pool will be 24 feet wide and three feet deep. Staff members at the Summerville Family YMCA will host swim lessons, and the Y will also provide lifeguards for the pool while in operation. Howell says they plan to begin an official fundraising campaign for the pool, which is estimated to cost nearly $50,000, in the fall.

“So often, especially in rural communities, they don't have access to swimming pools,” Holtzman said. “This is actually going to bring the pools to the kids rather than trying to get the kids to the pools.”

The lessons will focus more on emergency life-saving techniques than teaching children actual strokes, Howell explained. Mostly, the program’s goal is for children to leave with the knowledge of how to save their own life if they fall into a body of water.

“It's so tragic when you lose a child or have a child drown to something so preventable,” Holtzman said. “It happens in the blink of an eye. Even with kids in pools, you think you are watching them, and you turn around for a second and they get into trouble. And suddenly they are at the bottom of the pool or something tragic has happened.”

Although drownings are typically associated with deeper bodies of water such as a pool or lake, Holtzman explained it only takes a few inches for a tragedy to occur. Even unexpected household items such as mop buckets are a common place where younger children, such as toddlers, can drown.

“All it takes is a couple of inches for kids to fall into, and they can't maneuver themselves out and or can't upright themselves,” Holtzman said. “I think as soon as they can walk, just about, start getting them out there (in the water) and certainly by the time they are 3, 4 and 5 (years old).”

Any community members interested in donating flotation devices for the program can drop them off at the Summerville Family YMCA or Summerville Medical Center. For more information about the program, contact summerville.questionscomments@hcahealthcare.com.