Curbing rural drowning in Charleston County

Olivia Thornton has moved on to learn advanced strokes, including breaststroke and butterfly, as part of LAPS swim skills class held for campers at Lincoln High School on Thursday July 14, 2016. The program, with a portable pool, moves to four camp locations during the summer for instruction. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

One of South Carolina’s greatest natural assets is also wildly dangerous to its residents — and this is a good weekend to remind folks of that.

Wendell Gilliard explains the problem simply: The Lowcountry is surrounded by water, but too many people here don’t know how to swim.

Those two facts explain why the state ranks 10th nationally for drownings. Dozens of people die in the water here every year, and at least a quarter of them are children.

“Every time I see a kid drown, I cry on the inside,” the veteran state lawmaker says.

A few years ago, Gilliard prompted the Legislature to declare May as South Carolina’s annual Water Safety Month. He’s persuaded schools to use the designation to warn students of the dangers and urge them to learn how to swim.

But the real answer, he says, is making swimming part of the curriculum.

“My next mission is to get them to put it in the curriculum in all public schools in South Carolina,” he says. “When I first introduced the bill a few years ago, it had bipartisan support.”

It is a noble idea. But in a state that struggles to get children reading on grade level and keep teachers on staff, swimming lessons are admittedly a hard sell — a luxury, in fact. Even though it is very important.

This is a problem that affects rural children more than others, and African Americans at about three times the rate of white kids. Some of it is cultural, some of it is economics. And another portion of it is opportunity.

Fortunately, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission has some good programs to address these problems.

Right now, the county’s 24-foot portable pool is at Jane Edwards Elementary on Edisto Island — one of the most rural and under-served communities in the Lowcountry. For two weeks, certified instructors and lifeguards teach Jane Edwards kids the basics of swimming.

“We wanted a way to serve our rural communities,” says Sarah Reynolds, public information coordinator for the Park and Recreation Commission.

Reynolds says the transformation children go through with the swim lessons is amazing. On the first day, some of the children won’t even get in the water. Two weeks later, many of them are dog paddling around the pool.

But most importantly, they learn enough to get out of the water should they fall in.

It’s fitting that Jane Edwards Elementary gets so much use out of the portable pool because the original idea came from Steve Austin. As a part-time resident of the island, and a member of the nonprofit Community Services of Edisto, he took the idea of a portable pool from California cities that had been doing the same thing for years.

Local companies pitched in, did some work for free, donated supplies, volunteered labor. And since then, the pool has been a big hit. The county offers it to other schools, although it is hard to fit more activities into the academic calendar.

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Which is the biggest hurdle to Gilliard’s dream of swimming lessons for all public school children.

The county is doing its part, however. Every summer, Park and Recreation employees cart the portable pool around to Johns Island, McClellanville and Hollywood schools for summer camps. In a single summer — and this has been going on for six years — county instructors might teach 300 or 400 rural kids to swim.

That’s a good start.

In June, the Park and Recreation Commission will open the West County Aquatic Center in Hollywood, which features a 6,000-square-foot pool on Highway 165 next to the new town hall. Another positive step.

The county deserves a lot of credit for putting such a facility, usually reserved for the suburbs, into a rural community with a lot of water — and a lot of non-swimmers. Perhaps it will become a hub of the community, and inspire similar facilities across the county.

And one government agency can do what the schools can’t.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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